Federal trial will test Georgia voting requirements for new U.S. citizens

Naturalized citizens are often required to show proof before voting
Dina Pimentel, from Argentina, can’t hold back her emotions after she was sworn in as a naturalized citizen during a ceremony at the Carter Center in Atlanta on Oct. 1. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Dina Pimentel, from Argentina, can’t hold back her emotions after she was sworn in as a naturalized citizen during a ceremony at the Carter Center in Atlanta on Oct. 1. (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

When new U.S. citizens try to register to vote in Georgia, they still can’t cast a ballot until they get a new state ID or show papers to election officials.

A federal trial that began Monday will determine whether those obstacles violate the voting rights of immigrants who have already gone through the long process to become U.S. citizens.

Defenders of Georgia’s registration laws say verification requirements are necessary to prevent noncitizen voting. Without verification, noncitizens could attempt to vote illegally, an attorney for the state said.

Zero noncitizens have voted in recent Georgia elections, according to a 2022 audit by the secretary of state’s office. State law requires voters to be citizens.

“This case is about discrimination against naturalized citizens, overwhelmingly people of color,” Alex Davis, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said during an opening statement. “This system treats naturalized citizens different than natural-born citizens based on nothing more than the accident of their birthplace.”

An attorney for the state, Bryan Jacoutot, said election officials have an obligation to ensure that only citizens vote.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Election officials need proof when government records indicate that someone isn’t a citizen but swears on their voter registration application that they are eligible, he said.

“The state should not just throw up their hands and allow them to vote anyway,” Jacoutot said. “It would amount to an endorsement of noncitizen voting in the state of Georgia.”

The voter registration process requires extra steps for new U.S. citizens because federal immigration agencies don’t inform election officials when a resident earns citizenship.

New citizens must either provide naturalization documents with their voter registration application, send papers to election offices, show citizenship information when they vote or present proof within three days of an election.

They can also pay $32 to update their driver’s licenses to reflect that they have become U.S. citizens and then re-register to vote.

There were roughly 4,000 Georgia voter registrations labeled as “pending” because of citizenship verification as of January, according to state records. All voters must show ID before they can vote in each election.

The secretary of state’s office previously said it would routinely update and verify voters’ citizenship status by the end of last year, but it has so far failed to do so during a transition to new voter registration technology.

A Gwinnett County voter, Franco Chevalier, is expected to testify about the difficulties he faced after he became a citizen in October 2018.

Even though Chevalier submitted his naturalization certificate with his voter registration form, county officials repeatedly required him to submit proof before he could vote in 2018. Voting records show his absentee ballot was eventually counted.

“I do not know what more I can do to ensure my ballot is counted,” Chevalier wrote in a court declaration. “Voting in this election was extremely important to me and I am extremely disappointed that I may be disenfranchised through no fault of my own.”

The case is finally going to trial this week in the lawsuit that has been pending since 2018.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the defendant in the lawsuit, said it could open the door to noncitizen voting.

“I am strongly against noncitizen voting and will fight all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to, Raffensperger said.

The lawsuit alleges the requirements infringe on voters’ rights in violation of the protections against discrimination in the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

Several voting rights groups are plaintiffs in the case, including the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, the New Georgia Project, GALEO (formerly known as the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials), ProGeorgia and Common Cause.

The trial is expected to last a week, including testimony from three recent U.S. citizens, state election officials, and experts on voting behavior and demographics.