As of mid-April, Georgia is extremely close to adopting a proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration, which would require individuals to provide documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Georgia’s proof of citizenship bill has passed the state house and senate, and only awaits the governor’s signature before it becomes law and makes Georgia the second state (besides Arizona) to require proof of citizenship from its voters.2
The documents acceptable under Georgia’s proposed legislation include a birth certificate, passport, and naturalization papers, among others. Georgia already requires voters to show photo ID in order to vote,3 but the new law will create an even more onerous burden for Georgia voters.
A recent survey of Georgia’s elections officials by the Brennan Center for Justice indicates that this stringent measure addresses a manufactured problem—non-citizen registration or voting is a rare and isolated occurrence in Georgia, and to the extent it has occurred, it is a result of mistake and not voter fraud. Of the elections officials who were interviewed, representing counties that comprised 40 percent of Georgia’s population,4 none believed that non-citizens had fraudulently registered to vote or voted.
The Brennan Center surveyed county clerks or election supervisors from thirteen Georgia counties; at the time of the survey, the officials had held their positions for varying lengths of time, from 15 to 22 years.6 Although a few of the elections officials interviewed had encountered inadvertent registration by non-citizens through the Georgia Department of Driver Services—which offers individuals applying for driver licenses the opportunity to register themselves to vote automatically—each was notified of such mistakes by the state’s voter verification system, and was able to remove these non- citizens from the voter rolls.7 Also, although three elections officials from counties with large foreign-born populations did believe that a non-citizen had voted in their county,8 each reported that it was likely due to a misunderstanding, i.e., it was done without the requisite knowledge or intent to constitute voter fraud.
The election officials interviewed emphasized that the state’s very stringent voter verification system—implemented in compliance with the Help America Vote Act—is used to ensure that non-citizens are not registered to vote.9 In fact, though the officials noted that numerous individuals were flagged by the state system as being potential non-citizens in the November 2008 election, they stated that these individuals were very likely to be flagged as a result of simple bookkeeping errors or typos10 and that many of them were able to present proof that they were indeed citizens.11 Thus, it appears that the state’s current system for voter verification is already more than stringent enough to ensure that non-citizens are not voting—indeed, some Georgia election officials stated that the system was overexclusive, keeping actual citizens from voting because of typos and other errors in state databases.
The Georgia elections officials that were interviewed also agreed that the proof of citizenship requirement could prove extremely onerous on voters, noting that few people are likely to carry their passport or birth certificate around with them the way they might be expected to carry other forms of identification12 and that some people, particularly in rural areas, may not have access to these documents at all.13 Conclusion
Interviews with election officials in Georgia mirror the situation nationally; non-citizens virtually never attempt to intentionally defraud the election system.14 Congress has declined to require proof of citizenship for voting, finding that “[s]tudies indicate that illegal voting or voter fraud is extremely rare, and such behavior is already punishable by law.”15 Non-citizen voting is a contrived problem, and proof of citizenship requirements are extremely burdensome, especially for poor, minority, elderly, and disabled citizens who lack easy access to proof of their citizenship.16 There is no evidence that Georgia has a problem with non-citizen voting sufficient to justify the costs — to the state and individual voters — that its proposed law will impose.
1 Kristen Baker and Nelly Ward are third-year law students at NYU School of Law who work with the Brennan Center on issues related to voter registration.
2 See Mary Lou Pickel , Citizenship proof for voter registration passes General Assembly, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 3, 2009, at http://blogs.ajc.com/gold-dome-live/2009/04/03/citizenship-proof-for-voter-registration-passes-general-assembly/.
3 See Ga. Code §21-2-417.
4 The Brennan Center interviewed county clerks or election supervisors in Atkinson, Bibb, Chatham, Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Echols, Fulton, Gwinnett, Hall, Muscogee, Richmond, and Whitfield counties. Though attempts were made to interview the Director of Elections and Registration in Clayton county, they could not be reached; that county’s population is not included in the 40 percent figure.
14 See, e.g., Jenny Rose Flanagan, Voting Rights Threatened by Proof of Citizenship Proposals, Colorado Springs Independent, Dec. 20, 2007; Andrea Senteno, Voter Identification Laws: Safeguard or Barrier?, Gotham Gazette (NY), June 27, 2008; GOP pushes bill to make voters prove citizenship, Associated Press, Mar. 10, 2008 (reporting on South Carolina, and finding that “[t]here is no evidence of a non-citizen trying to vote in a South Carolina election”).
15 See 152 Cong. Rec. H. 6765 (Sept. 20, 2006) (statement by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-MD).
16 See Robert Pastor et al., American University, Center for Democracy & Election Management, Voter IDs Are Not the Problem: A Survey of Three States 25 (2008) (finding low-income and African-American voters were most likely to lack proof of their citizenship); Robert Greenstein et al., Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Survey Indicates House Bill Could Deny Voting Rights to Millions of U.S. Citizens 1 (Sept. 22, 2006) (“CBPP Survey”), available at http://www.cbpp.org/9-22-06id.pdf (finding that African-American, low-income, and elderly voters were most likely to lack proof of citizenship).