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Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Wrong to Reverse Arizona Proof-of-Citizenship Law


On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 2004 Arizona law requiring proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register and vote in U.S. elections.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article about a legal permanent resident, Joseph E. Joseph, originally from St. Kitts, who registered and voted in U.S. elections thinking he was doing his civic duty. He admitted his actions during his naturalization interview and his application was denied because he voted as a non-citizen.

If New York required proof of citizenship to register to vote, it would have saved Mr. Joseph a lot of grief. He might even have obtained his citizenship by now and been able to legally vote on Tuesday. Instead, he’s battling deportation proceedings. Our immigration laws are in place to protect citizens and legal immigrants alike. This is another case of the lax enforcement of our immigration laws leading to abuse and confusion.

According the Times, Mr. Joseph told the voter registration volunteers in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn that he had a green card. They told him that if he’s paying taxes, he has “a right to vote.” Unfortunately for him, registering and voting in U.S. elections when you are not a citizen is a felony under federal law. 18 U.S.C. § 1015(f) makes it illegal to claim you are a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote for any election, punishable by up to five years in prison. While most people can’t quote U.S. code, knowing that you have to be a citizen in order to vote is elementary civics. The volunteers should have known better. And perhaps they did. Not requiring proof of citizenship not only opens the door to immigrants committing fraud, but also puts well-intentioned immigrants at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous groups and organizations seeking to advance their political agendas and candidates.

While Mr. Joseph says that he wasn’t aware that he was violating the law, the federal voter registration form is very clear that it is for U.S. citizens only. In fact, the very first question on the form is, “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” Registrants are required to “swear/affirm” that they are “a United States citizen.” The form is offered in seven different languages, making it a little difficult to claim ignorance of the citizenship requirement.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law saying, “Proposition 200 creates an additional state hurdle to registration,” conflicting with the National Voter Registration Act. However, every time a non-citizen votes, it negates the vote of a citizen. So, while the court thinks it upheld a reduction in “state-imposed obstacles” to registration, it actually upheld a pathway to disenfranchisement of citizens.

This is most apparent in close races (of which there will probably be a few this Tuesday). In 1996, Loretta Sanchez defeated Bob Dornan by 979 votes in California’s 47th Congressional District. 624 votes were cast by non-citizens; discovered because they applied for citizenship and were in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The INS refused to check the Orange County voter registration files for any illegal aliens who might be in their system and Dornan lost his seat by 213 votes (124 absentee ballots were found to be improper). There was no way to tell how many illegal aliens might have voted in that election.

Since the Arizona law has been struck down, Georgia is now the only state that checks the citizenship of first-time voters. Federally, there are no procedures in place to detect or prevent non-citizens from registering to vote. Voter registration in the United States relies on the honor system. But what is honor in a system without integrity?

CAROLINE ESPINOSA was formerly a U.S. Senate Press Secretary and spokesperson for NumbersUSA

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