Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
As we count down to the new year – a time when the Supreme Court will weigh-in on the voter ID debate and we will cast ballots for the next president of the United States – Texas lawmakers continue to aggressively present the alleged issue of non-citizens voting. This week, voter ID was added to the list of topics to be studied by the House State Affairs Committee for the 2009 legislative session, an action deemed a partisan ploy to reintroduce the "discriminatory and divisive" legislation of 2007. Stirring the so-called voter fraud plot in Texas to greater heights, a coalition of legislators requested Secretary of State Phil Wilson "implement more stringent proof of citizenship requirements before casting a ballot in Texas" in November 2008.
In a letter to Wilson, a group of 13 lawmakers representing the Texas Conservative Coalition said the state policy "'to simply accept an applicant's mere assertion'" of U.S. citizenship "'has always been unacceptable, but it is time that it is scrapped.'"
"We're hoping he'll come up with his own initiative," Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) said. "One that, hopefully, won't require legislation."
The group asked Wilson to implement a plan to require voter ID before the 2008 general election to identify new registrants as U.S. citizens, suggesting the cross-checking of information between several databases, according to Phil Riddle of the Weatherford Democrat Tuesday.
Last spring, King introduced, HB 626, a bill requiring election officials to verify citizenship of every new applicant for voter registration. Despite fears of voter disenfranchisement, the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate. The state is one of 19 to introduce legislation requiring proof-of-citizenship at registration since 2004 – the same time the partisan driven issue of voter fraud emerged as a way to institutionalize voter suppression efforts. Arizona is the only state in which citizens voted to pass such a law through the much contested Proposition 200.
"I thought it was a no-brainer," King said. "I was called a bigot and called out for trying to limit minority voting rights. There was a bitter fight on the floor of the House."
Proof-of-citizenship requirements have been found to disenfranchise legitimate voters, particularly low income and female citizens. A field experiment conducted by Project Vote in the summer of 2006 found 30% of individuals who identified themselves as citizens and wanted to register did not have proof of citizenship with them in their homes. Polling data by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law also explains how such registration requirements create obstacles to voting:
- 13 million individuals do not have ready access to documentation passports, naturalization papers, or birth certificates.
- 12% of citizens earning less than $25K do not have ready documentation.
- Less than half (48%) of voting age women with ready access to birth certificates have them with current, legal name.
Although HB 626 died in the 80th Legislature, House Speaker Tom Craddick made assignments for the House State Affairs Committee to study voter ID for the 2009 legislative session, according to Janet Elliott of the Houston Chronicle.
"We need to ensure that only U.S. citizens who are Texas residents are voting in our Texas elections," said Craddick. However, evidence of non-citizen voting is scarce. "Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie said the review is 'just another partisan attempt to resurrect the discriminatory and divisive' legislation," wrote Elliott.
"Each non-citizen who votes cancels out the vote of a citizen, leading to voter disenfranchisement," the Texas Conservative Coalition wrote in their letter to Wilson. The coalition asserts "voter fraud tied to growing numbers of illegal aliens is becoming a problem across Texas," citing testimony of "Harris County Tax Assessor/Collector Paul Bettencourt" who told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on House Administration that he identified 35 "foreign nationals who either applied for or received voter registration documents in 2005."
However, there is no reference in the Riddle report to the actual number of illegal votes cast, the true classification of voter fraud. Government records show that between 2002 and 2005, just 24 people were convicted or plead guilty to illegal voting nationwide. Fourteen of these were illegal because they were cast by non-citizens. Read more on voter fraud in this Project Vote report.
The letter claims Bettencourt's office has canceled registration cards for non-citizenship for 3,742 voters in the last 15 years. King said he has "6,500 names of people who are on the voter registration rolls and should not be. We know there are tens of thousands in the state."
These "findings" are not a far cry from the exaggerated list maintenance issue that recently made headlines in Texas despite findings of only .4% of the voter rolls populated with possible ineligible voters. By creating transparent, non-discriminatory list maintenance procedures mandated by the Help America Vote Act and the National Voter Registration Act, issues of voter rolls being spiked by non-citizens can and are being resolved. However, the specter of "voter fraud" - in this case playing on racist fears of undocumented immigrants - is being used as a partisan attempt to wrongfully deny voter registration to eligible potential voters through, for example, proof-of-citizenship requirements. And it is also being used to agitate for aggressive purges of the voting rolls. Both are means to legitimatize disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible citizens.
Spokesperson for the Secretary of State, Scott Haywood said Wilson had not received the letter and could not comment. However, "if they [the legislature] decide we need more or better means of identification, we'll do that," Haywood said. "We'll do whatever is necessary to maintain the integrity of the elections system in Texas."
While the report is unclear on how many non-citizens are filling out registration cards and committing actual voter fraud by voting on Election Day, it is clear from the Brennan Center and Project Vote data (above) how many legitimate citizens would be blocked from exercising their most basic democratic right if such proof-of-citizenship initiatives were implemented in the U.S. If maintaining election integrity in Texas (or any of the 17 other states that have considered proof-of-citizenship laws in recent years) entails disenfranchising millions of citizens to "protect" against the exceedingly rare crime of voter fraud, lawmakers and citizens should re-think the definition of "integrity."
Express your thoughts on the Texas proof-of-citizenship proposal and click on the following links for contact information of the state political figures mentioned in the story.
"Citizens Without Proof."The Brennan Center For Justice. November 2006.
In Other News:
An Ohio study deemed Wisconsin's election system "2nd best in the Midwest." The study praised the state for allowing registration on Election Day as well as "its attempts to create a nonpartisan election system, both historically and with the formation of its new Government Accountability Board." The problems encountered were "slow speed of the database system, failure to match against motor vehicle records and other state records, and problems with the absentee voting module." Read more in this Green Bay Press-Gazette report.
"Whether Americans will be able to verify electronic vote counts in 2008's presidential election will vary from state to state, as underscored by a little-noticed lawsuit that goes to trial this week in Pima County, Ariz., where Tucson is located. There, in a fast-growing region, the local Democratic Party is suing the Pima County Board of Supervisors -- including its three Democratic members -- to release the complete electronic records of a 2006 election that included a ballot question on raising taxes for a $2 billion transportation bond. The measure, favored by developers, won even though it lost in prior elections and was trailing in pre-election polls." Read more in this AlterNet report.
"A handful of top state election officials, including Maryland's former secretary of state John Willis, have joined a lawsuit challenging Indiana's Voter ID law," arguing that their "cumulative professional experience has seen 'virtually no evidence of polling place voter impersonation fraud, the stated reason for enactment of the Indiana law at issue here.'" Read more of this Associated Press report here.
Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).