By Phil West,
May 10, 2010

NASHVILLE — Local election administrators could demand proof of citizenship from people when they register to vote under legislation state senators approved this evening.

Potential voters could go to prison for up to 12 years if they lie when presenting proof of citizenship to local election officials.

The House approved the legislation Wednesday on a 92-1 vote but will have to reconsider the bill after the Senate adopted several amendments that were not in the measure that passed the House.

Senators approved the legislation on a 20-12 vote after nearly two hours of debate.

Supporters said the bill helps keep the integrity of the state’s election process, but opponents argued it could lead to profiling and be seen by minorities and legal immigrants as a way to keep them from the polls.

“I don’t think the members feel there is a profiling concern here at all,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.

Several Democratic senators argued that the legislation does not require local election administrators to accept any particular form of citizenship proof; it allows them to require several forms of proof if they want.

“That is a chilling effect on people who would like to register to vote. That is very un-Tennessean,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

State law already requires potential voters to check a box on the registration form that declares they are U.S. citizens.

Norris said he sponsored the measure because local election officials wanted guidance on how to check proof of citizenship.

Providing false information on the registration form formerly was a Class E felony, which carries the lowest prison term. That was changed in 2006, but the state has been using the old forms.

Violation now is a Class D felony, punishable by two to 12 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

Opponents of the legislation argued that it could lead to profiling, requiring suspected non-citizens to provide several types of citizenship proof.

Among the acceptable forms of citizenship proof are driver’s licenses, birth certificates, passports, naturalization documents or other proof spelled out in federal immigration law.

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