Guest Commentary

Noncitizen voting: Prop 200 tackles a dubious problem--and doesn't even offer a real solution

The Web site of the "Protect Arizona Now" initiative--or Proposition 200 on the November ballot--offers an anecdote that would seem to demonstrate why Arizona should require residents to prove U.S. citizenship when they register to vote.

As the story goes, former Gov. Jane Hull reported that when, as secretary of state in the mid-1990s, she passed out voter registration forms at a citizenship swearing-in ceremony, half the forms were returned by attendees who said they were already were signed up.

While sure to raise eyebrows, the story has two problems.

First, it's false. Hull has said she did not attend the event in question or, for that matter, any naturalization ceremony. Second, and more importantly, it's misleading. The story implies that Proposition 200 prevents noncitizens from registering to vote when, in fact, it does not.

To be sure, the initiative mandates that Arizonans submit proof of citizenship with voter registration forms. The problem is that it includes as evidence of U.S. citizenship state driver licenses and identification cards issued after 1996, even though noncitizens legally residing here can obtain both.

In other words, Proposition 200 contradicts itself.

Furthermore, the initiative would grandfather in residents already on voter rolls, so the thousands of undocumented immigrants who are supposedly registered could still cast ballots. And while the measure would make Arizonans show identification at polling stations, that requirement could be met by two pieces of mail with a name and address.

Such sloppy, paradoxical wording might be understandable if ordinary citizens had crafted Proposition 200, as its organizers would have voters believe. But the initiative's voter registration section reads verbatim from a bill, HB 2246, submitted to the State Legislature in January 2003 by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. (It was defeated in the Judiciary Committee the following month.)

Proposition 200's voting requirements have received less attention than its other, more controversial section, which would subject state employees to a fine and up to four months in jail for failing to report undocumented immigrants who apply for nonfederally mandated services.

While some have called that provision draconian, the voter registration section appears far more sensible--that is, until one considers why no other state makes residents prove citizenship to register to vote.

Though it seems like common sense, guaranteeing that only citizens vote would be so burdensome as to make staging elections almost impossible. It would require every registered voter, present and future, to submit a U.S. passport, naturalization certificate or a certified copy of a birth certificate for inspection--or, create a national ID card. Failing that, legal immigrants could theoretically register and vote in Arizona whether or not Proposition 200 passes, and even the undocumented would remain on voter rolls.

Those more likely to feel the impact of Proposition 200 include native U.S. citizens who, for whatever reason, lack a state identification card. Now, they simply can list the last four digits of their Social Security number on voter registration forms. Under Proposition 200, they instead would have to submit a copy of their birth certificate or passport. It is hard to say how those citizens would register if they did not own a passport and if their birth certificates were in another state or displayed a different name--like newcomers to Arizona and women who take their husbands' names.

For its part, Arizona's mainstream media have not examined whether Proposition 200 actually would prevent noncitizens from voting, nor if it could make registration more difficult for some natives.

To this point in the campaign, Proposition 200's opposition mostly has featured liberal groups calling it "racist" and "divisive." Just as easily, the initiative could face opposition from moderates and conservatives noting that the voter registration section, however well intended, would not fix a problem it meant to solve--especially when election officials question the extent of the problem itself. Indeed, voter registrars around Arizona say charges of noncitizen voting fraud are rare and almost never pan out.

If Hull's statement had actually proven true, and if voter rolls included large numbers of noncitizens, her story would not be newsworthy in the first place. Why? Similar incidents would happen all the time.

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