Critics Claim Proposed Ga. Law Requiring Voters to Prove Citizenship Is a Poll Tax
It's been more than 40 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed, barring voting practices used throughout the South for years to keep poor blacks from voting. Today in Georgia, registering to vote is simple: check a box on an application affirming you are a citizen.
However, both chambers of the Georgia Legislature approved a bill earlier this month that would require people to provide a birth certificate, U.S. passport, naturalization papers or other documents proving citizenship. Similar bills have surfaced this year in five other states - Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, Washington and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Supporters, including the official in charge of Georgia elections, have said the measure would protect the integrity of the voting process. Critics have countered people who don't have the documents available or can't afford the costs of getting copies might end up being disenfranchised.
"It's a poll tax and we've lived through that before," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "America has changed. We elected an African-American president, but Georgia wants to go back to the 1950s by enacting very restrictive, very cumbersome voting practices."
They point to Arizona - the only state with such a law - saying citizens there have had trouble because of what they call burdensome requirements.
"The results so far show that people who are citizens but were unable to produce the right documentation lost the right to vote. I mean that's what the result is," said Larry Frankel, a Washington-based attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It isn't as if people who are in an illegal status are rushing to the polls to vote because that's a good way of getting caught."
Secretary of State Karen Handel, a Republican whose office oversees elections, has aggressively lobbied for the measure.
Spokesman Matt Carrothers said the Secretary of State's Office sent 4,771 advisory letters before last year's general election to residents who attempted to register to vote but whose status was "flagged" because of a question about their immigration status. Of those, 2,718 never responded or provided proof of citizenship.
All told, he said 599 residents cast a "challenged" ballot due to questions about their citizenship, and 230 failed to provide proper documentation before election results were certified.
The vote on two similar bills broke pretty much along party lines in both houses of the Georgia Legislature, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats against it. Once the chambers hash out minor differences, the bill would go to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. The governor has not said whether he would sign it.
The law would take effect next year, and people already registered to vote would not have to prove citizenship as long as they remain on voter rolls. It would have to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department.
Georgia is still bound by the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination, most in the South, to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing any changes in the way elections are held.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2006 filed a lawsuit challenging Arizona's law, which had been approved by ballot initiative in 2004. Last year, the organization appealed a judge's decision upholding the law, and the case is now pending in a federal appeals court.
The defense fund contends the Arizona measure violates federal law and has caused a drop in voter registration and that Georgia's law would do the same if it passes.
Michael Kang, a law professor at Emory University who specializes in voting issues, said it's hard to tell what an Obama Justice Department will decide on Georgia's law. Citizenship is not a constitutional requirement for voting, he said, but courts have tended to allow states to limit the vote to citizens.
"The question here is whether the procedural requirement kind of goes beyond a tailored approach and ends up disenfranchising or discouraging participation by actual citizens who just simply can't comply with the procedural burden," Kang said.
He said the Justice Department could find that the procedural burden is too great because people could have to pay to get a copy of their birth certificate or other document proving citizenship and would effectively be barred from voting if they couldn't afford to get those documents.
Carrothers, of the Secretary of State's Office, said similar arguments were made by critics of a Georgia law - in effect during the 2008 election - requiring voters to present a photo ID when voting in person. He pointed out that voter turnout increased for last year's election when the law was in effect.
"To use the photo ID law as an example, the critics, for all their lawsuits and all their rhetoric, still could not provide someone who was unable to vote because of the photo ID legislation," he said. "Requiring proof of citizenship should have little to no impact on those who legally want to participate in our elections."