Immigration Hysteria May Affect Voting Rights in Tennessee

A disturbing and growing hysteria over immigration—most evident in Arizona’s horrifyingly oppressive new law—has now spread into election administration legislation in at least one state. On the same day that the Maine Republican Party adopted a blatantly xenophobic Tea Party platform, the Tennessee Senate injected anti-immigrant sentiment into a draconian bill to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote.

On Monday, the Tennessee Senate adopted a bill to allow election administrators who doubt the eligibility of any voter applicant to demand satisfactory proof of U.S. citizenship before processing the application. The state legislature had previously been unsuccessful in passing similar legislation in recent sessions, but is now tapping into the anti-immigrant hysteria, using “border protection” rhetoric to advance the bill.

“I think we all agree that Congress has failed to protect our borders,” said Senate bill sponsor Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland) at a hearing Monday night. According to a Nashville Public Radio report, Bunch argued that illegal immigrants distort the voices of Tennessee citizens and their needs, though he provided no evidence of illegal voting by non-citizens.

“And what we are doing tonight is protecting the privileges and rights of Tennesseans, whether it’s voting, or driving, or other important things, that are subject to being attacked, and the integrity of those being set aside, because we can’t control, or have a mechanism, to weed through those that are legally here,” he said.

Opponents of the bill say this measure only complicates an already effective registration process and will lead to discriminatory practices.

Sen. Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) told Project Vote that he doesn’t agree with the bill’s intent: “I think it’s wrong when someone can swear under penalty of perjury that they are a U.S. citizen, provide a social security number, and show a valid Tennessee driver’s license, but still be denied the opportunity to vote.”

The bill’s vague language, particularly the section that says “the administrator of elections may reject any application for registration that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship” may permit selective enforcement, according to the Associated Press.

“My concern is in the mechanics of this,” said Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson). “This is written in such a way that … registrars are going to be applying different standards in different ways.”

Not only would the discretionary request to prove citizenship pose potential problems, but its language also contains a bias toward natural born citizens over newly naturalized citizens: copies of birth certificates and passports are accepted, for example, but original naturalization papers must be presented in person.

Further, advocates warn against proof-of citizenship requirements at voter registration for their potential to discourage or disenfranchise legitimate voter applicants who may not have the necessary citizenship documents on hand. A 2006 survey by Brennan Center for Justice found that as many as 13 million Americans did not have access to citizenship documents, many of them lower income citizens.

Currently (and not surprisingly), Arizona is the only state that has enacted and implemented a similar proof of citizenship requirement at registration. Georgia passed a proof of citizenship bill in 2009, but it has not been cleared by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. (The state had already been criticized by the DOJ for implementing a discriminatory “citizen check” procedure to maintain voter rolls.)

An earlier version of the Tennessee House Bill 270/Senate Bill 194, which passed the House on May 5, only provided a warning on voter registration cards that falsifying information is a felony. Since passing the Senate on Monday, the dangerously revised bill is back in the House for concurrence.

“It hampers people who want to be a part of the system,” said Sen. Thelma Harper (D-Nashville) in the AP report. “I think it’s just a bad piece of legislation. It’s mean-spirited, and I think it’s going to come back and bite some of us who will be back here next year.”

Tags: election reform, disenfranchisement, immigration, citizenship, voter registration, Voting Rights, Discrimination, tennessee (all tags)

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