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1 in 10 eligible U.S. voters say they can’t easily show proof of their citizenship

People wait in line to vote in Georgia's 2022 primary election in Atlanta.
Brynn Anderson
/
AP
People wait in line to vote in Georgia's 2022 primary election in Atlanta.

Top Republicans are lining up behind a proposal to require proof of U.S. citizenship for voter registration in federal elections. But for millions of U.S. citizens, it’s not easy to prove their citizenship with a document.

About 1 in 10 adult citizens, or 21.3 million eligible voters, say they either do not have or could not quickly find in order to show the next day their U.S. birth certificate, passport, naturalization certificate or certificate of citizenship, according to results released Tuesday from a national survey.

The new findings, shared first with NPR, also show disparities by race, ethnicity and political affiliation.

U.S. citizens of color are more likely than white citizens, who do not identify as Latino, to say they lack citizenship documents (3% of people of color compared to 1% of white people) or can’t readily access them (11% of people of color vs. 8% of white people). Independents are more likely to report that they don’t have documents (4%) compared to Democrats (2%) and Republicans (1%). They are also more likely to report not having ready document access (13%) than Democrats (10%) and Republicans (7%).

The results fall in line with longstanding concerns among many election experts and voting rights advocates, who have warned that proposals — including the new Republican-backed bill in the U.S. House of Representatives — to require people to show documentary proof of citizenship when signing up to vote in federal elections could risk keeping eligible voters from casting ballots.

“We've got a huge crisis on our hands when we think about the people who lack the documents required to prove their citizenship and identity. And we really need to think about the far-reaching implications for that when it comes to economic and social and voting access,” says Lauren Kunis, executive director of VoteRiders, a voting rights organization focused on voter ID issues that sponsored the survey alongside groups including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school and the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

How election officials verify citizenship without documents

Federal law requires states to accept registration forms that call for applicants to swear under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens and review this warning: “If I have provided false information, I may be fined, imprisoned, or (if not a U.S. citizen) deported from or refused entry to the United States.” Most states also use applicants’ driver’s license or Social Security numbers to check people’s citizenship information in government agency databases.

Still, a group of House Republicans rolled out a bill last month to require all eligible voters to show documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections. Applicants who cannot provide an acceptable document would be able to sign a sworn statement about their U.S. citizenship and submit “other evidence” to a state official, who would decide whether the applicant has “sufficiently established” citizenship.

While the proposal is unlikely to become law in this divided Congress, the GOP lawmakers say they want to address the rare and illegal practice of non-U.S. citizens casting ballots for federal races — a talking point that former President Donald Trump and his supporters have long boosted.

“We all know intuitively that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections, but it's not been something that is easily provable. We don't have that number,” said House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, at a press conference about the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act.

Numbers that are available, however, indicate that noncitizens cast ballots in exceedingly small numbers in federal elections.

“By making these requirements more strict, you're more likely to catch people who actually do have the documents or are able to verify their identity but, just because of happenstance or some quirk, are unable to do so at the very moment when they need to in order to vote,” says Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, who has researched the impact of voter ID laws.

Why showing proof of citizenship can be a hurdle

The latest results from the national survey, which was conducted last September and October, are a reminder that the financial and logistical hurdles to getting a citizenship document or keeping one on hand should not be overlooked, Fraga adds.

“I think that the broader story that we see here is the idea that what for many Americans doesn't seem like that big of an issue — demonstrating that you're a citizen — for some Americans is actually enough of a hurdle to make voting just inaccessible,” Fraga says.

Kunis, VoteRiders’ executive director, says her organization has helped eligible voters overcome a range of barriers to obtaining citizenship documents. They may be stored inside a bank’s safe deposit box or tucked away at a family member’s home in another town or state. Some people may need support navigating a “bureaucratic doom loop” when trying to replace faded certificates, Kunis adds.

And for more than 3.8 million adult citizens, or about 2% of eligible voters, there’s no document to find at all, according to the survey’s estimates. That includes birth certificates.

“Older Americans and Black Americans, particularly in the South, are more likely to have been born outside of a hospital setting, meaning they didn't receive a birth certificate automatically,” Kunis points out.

What is driving these calls for proof of citizenship?

While the survey found that requiring proof of citizenship would likely disproportionately affect historically underrepresented groups, including people of color and political independents, Michael Hanmer, a professor of government and politics, who directs the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement, notes that the results also show that these requirements would still affect other groups.

“There's not a whole lot of evidence that, for example, stricter laws about proof of citizenship are going to solve problems with fraud because there really aren't problems with fraud,” Hanmer says. “That leads you to wonder, ‘Well, what might be going on here?’ And if there's political reasons behind it, then our results suggest that that should be rethought because this is not going to just hit one group. It's going to hit everybody.”

In New Hampshire, Republican-led proposals would change the state’s election laws to require proof of citizenship when people register to vote in the state for the first time. Federal courts struck down a similar Kansas state law — which was backed by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who is the state’s current attorney general and once served as vice chair of Trump’s short-lived voter fraud commission — for violating the 14th Amendment and the National Voter Registration Act.

And there is an ongoing legal fight over Arizona’s now-blocked proof-of-citizenship requirements that ban registered voters who have not provided proof from voting in presidential elections or by mail for any federal office. The Republican National Committee, along with Arizona’s top GOP state lawmakers, are appealing a federal judge’s ruling that found the National Voter Registration Act preempts the state’s restrictions.

With no evidence that noncitizens are voting in numbers significant enough to sway election outcomes, Sean Morales-Doyle — director of the voting rights program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for expanded voter access — says calls to enact requirements like these are fueled instead by baseless claims of widespread voter fraud from Trump and his allies.

“They're trying to lay the groundwork for the ability to call the outcome into question if they aren't happy about the outcome later,” Morales-Doyle says. “We've seen this playbook before and we're seeing it play out again.”

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.