WASHINGTON — Concerns over illegal immigration have causes more than a dozen states to consider forcing residents to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote.
Arizona is the only state that requires would-be voters to prove they’re citizens, but other states are weighing similar requirements.
Arizona “is going to be the first rather than the last,” said Robert Pastor, director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University.
Pastor said whether to require voters to prove citizenship “is an interesting question that Americans never really have asked until recently. The major reason they’re asking it now has to do with the fears about immigration.”
Civil rights groups and other critics of the citizenship requirement say it could suppress turnout among minorities, the elderly and other people who often don’t have access to birth certificates or other citizenship documents.
“One fear is a hodge-podge of different documentation requirements across the country that people don’t have and that are confusing,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
But Arizona election officials and supporters of the requirement say it helps prevent fraud and deters noncitizens from voting.
States “should implement measures to ensure that eligible voters are, in fact, citizens of the United States,” said David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
Since 2005, lawmakers in at least a dozen states have tried each year to pass a proof-of-citizenship requirement for people registering to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. None has passed. A similar measure in the U.S. House also failed.
This year, measures are pending in 14 states – Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington – according to the Brennan Center.
“There’s definitely a movement nationwide to do something about keeping illegal immigrants from voting,” said Toby Moore, an elections and voting researcher at RTI International, a nonprofit research group. “The movement will grow unless the courts step in to intervene.”
Arizona’s citizenship requirement is one of several voting rights issues under debate. States also are awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of an Indiana law that requires residents to show government-issued photo identification at the polls.
Voters must be U.S. citizens, but most states don’t require proof. Residents usually sign registration forms verifying they’re citizens.
The 2004 Arizona law requires would-be voters to show a passport, birth certificate, naturalization documents, a tribal enrollment number or a driver’s license issued after Oct. 1, 1996, when residents were required to prove citizenship before getting a license.
The state has successfully fought off legal challenges to the law. Another is pending in federal court.
Opponents of the law say providing proof of citizenship could be particularly burdensome for older people in the rural South who may have not have been issued a birth certificate.
They also argue the law will do little to address illegal immigration because there’s no evidence that undocumented workers show up at the polls.
“The last thing in the world an illegal immigrant is likely to do is commit a felony by voting, ” said Neil Bradley, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. “If you want to scare people with immigration . . . you just lump that with voting and it gets messy.”
Most Arizona residents have been able to comply, said Kevin Tyne, the state’s deputy secretary of state. Arizona launched an educational campaign and saw few problems in the 2006 elections, he said.