Georgia voter registration law partly blocked

This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling partly blocks Georgia from enforcing a law requiring would-be voters to prove U.S. citizenship, Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Wednesday.

In a 7-2 decision Monday, the court ruled a similar statute in Arizona is pre-empted by federal law. Passed in 2009, Georgia’s law requires voter registration applicants to provide proof of U.S. citizenship, such as copies of passports or birth certificates.

Kemp, however, said Georgia has never been able to enforce that statute because it has not been given access to a federal immigration database it could use to confirm the U.S. citizenship of those seeking to vote.

He said he is now considering asking the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to add new instructions on federal voter registration forms so Georgia can require proof of U.S. citizenship. In its ruling, the court indicated that is a possible pathway forward for Arizona.

“We will put all options on the table — whether we need to talk to the governor or Legislature or the Attorney General’s Office,” Kemp said.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office referred questions about the ruling to Attorney General Sam Olens on Monday. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Olens said his office was still reviewing the court’s ruling.

Supporters of Georgia’s and Arizona’s laws said the statutes would help block noncitizens from registering to vote and casting ballots in those states.

A spokesman for Kemp said the state comes across at least a dozen such cases each year. Critics said these laws are aimed at suppressing minority voters.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Arizona’s statute conflicts with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 — also known as the Motor Voter Act — which requires states to accept and use a certain federal form for registration. That federal form asks applicants to check a box confirming whether they are U.S. citizens.

Passed in 2004, Arizona’s Proposition 200 ballot initiative requires officials to reject any voter registration applications unless they are accompanied by proof of citizenship. That proof could include copies of a passport or birth certificate.

Georgia now requires its voter registration applicants to swear or affirm they are U.S. citizens. Certain first-time applicants are also required to submit copies of photo identification, a utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows their names and addresses.

Under the court’s ruling, Kemp concluded, Georgia is prohibited from requiring proof of citizenship when people fill out the federal voter registration form. Kemp said only a small percentage of those who register to vote in Georgia use that federal mail-in form, though he was unable to provide statistics. His office said about 600,000 people registered to vote in Georgia for the first time last year.

Meanwhile, Kemp said, the state could legally require people to provide evidence of their U.S. citizenship when they register to vote with separate state forms. The state has not started requiring such evidence, he said, because the federal government has not given it access to its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, an immigration database. Kemp said that program would help state officials confirm identification submitted by voter registration applicants.

For more than a year and a half, public records show, Georgia has been asking the federal government for access to that program. A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said this week that she was looking into the matter.

Critics of Georgia’s law cheered the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying there is no evidence to substantiate voter fraud is widespread in Georgia.

“It needs to be seen in the context of voter suppression efforts over the last 10 years now here in Georgia,” said state Senate Democratic Whip Vincent Fort of Atlanta. “I’m just glad the Supreme Court saw it the way that we saw it.”

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