Why “Show Me Your Papers” Voter Registration Laws Are Un-American

By Katherine Culliton-González, Advancement Project Senior Attorney & Director of Voter Protection

We’ve heard a lot about voter ID laws, but there is yet another kind of restrictive voting law spreading through state legislatures. Just like voter ID laws, it plays on fears in order to cut access to the ballot box. Specifically, these laws require proof of citizenship. Ultimately, these laws impose underrepresented populations with even more barriers to the ballot box.

­­­­In some states, such as Florida and Kansas, litigation has blocked tactics that would require voters to show documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote and stay on the rolls. But in Arizona, showing your citizenship papers is currently required for state but not for federal registration. This means that some citizens who are eligible to vote in federal elections may not vote in state and local elections  – creating a new second-class of citizens who are unable to vote for their local sheriff, city council member, or school board. In Alabama and Georgia, similar laws were passed, but it is not yet clear how they may be being implemented.  What is clear is that requiring documentary proof of citizenship disparately impacts communities of color.

With the 2016 primary season beginning in just a week, here is what may be concerning some citizens who want to register to vote:

·        Naturalized citizens may be wondering, “Do I have to bring my naturalization papers, which cost $345 if I need a new copy?” More than five percent of Americans are naturalized citizens. About two of every five persons living in the U.S. who were born elsewhere are naturalized citizens.  These laws would also have a disproportionate impact on communities of color: Less than half (45.5%) of naturalized citizens are white.  About 32% are Latino, another 32% are Asian, and 9.8% are Black

·        Ms. Melande Antoine and Ms. Karen Arcia are naturalized citizens who were targeted for removal from the voting rolls by the State of Florida’s 2012 “purge list.” Over 85% of targeted voters were people of color, and like Ms. Antoine and Ms. Arcia, many were Caribbean and Latin American naturalized citizens. Both received threatening letters from their local boards of elections requiring them to bring in documentary proof of citizenship within 30 days, or they would be removed from the rolls and could be charged with a felony. This was only stopped by litigation, advocacy and communications strategies to convince local election officials that the data being used was inaccurate, obsolete, and an insufficient basis for challenging voters.

·        Other voters of color may be wondering, do I have to bring my birth certificate? African-Americans are less likely than whites to have birth certificates, and the cost of getting a copy ranges from $75-175, or more if legal fees are involved. Missouri’s proposed proof of citizenship law would have blocked 78-year-old Ms. Millie Lewis from voting. Ms. Lewis was born in Mississippi and, like many African Americans born in the Jim Crow South, has voted in every Presidential election she can remember -- but she does not have a birth certificate.

·        Millennials and low-income voters who don’t drive may be wondering what documents they can show to prove that they are who they say they are. Millennials, and particularly young people of color, are less likely to have the type of IDs that require proof of citizenship. More than 44% of eligible Latino voters in 2016 are Millennials, compared to only 27% of eligible Caucasian voters.

In other words, voter registration laws requiring documentary proof of citizenship make it harder for the growing new American majority to vote. Latino, African-American, and young voters are more likely to find it harder to register to vote. The impact on young voters of color and naturalized citizens is particularly telling. As PEW just reported, the rapidly-increasing Latino share of the electorate – which is projected to reach 27.3 million eligible voters in 2016 -- is driven by youth and naturalization.

Moreover, while we all care about election integrity, allegations of noncitizens voting by the proponents of these laws are overwhelmingly false. In Florida, the state alleged that 180,000 noncitizens were on the voting rolls, but in 2012, only one noncitizen had voted, who was Canadian.  That person had voted by mistake, believing he was exercising a civic duty, but since it was a felony he was sent to prison and subject to deportation. Precisely because of these penalties, noncitizen voting is extremely rare in Florida, where the great majority of naturalized citizens are people of color. Many were targeted simply because they are naturalized citizens who were identified as former immigrants from questionable databases. Even though naturalized citizens have passed a tough citizenship test that only a small percentage of U.S.-born citizens can pass, and taken an oath of loyalty to our country, they are being targeted along with others who do not have easy access to documentary proof of citizenship.

Requiring additional proof of citizenship to register to vote is just another red herring in the war on voting. “Show Me Your Papers” voting laws are backed by elitists and others who would reject the new American majority. But rather than making it harder to vote for the next generation, we must return to the most fundamental principles of our democracy. Every American citizen, whether rich or poor, born in the U.S. or naturalized, and no matter what their race, must have equal access to our fundamental right to vote.