Republicans pushed two anti-illegal immigrant bills through the state Senate Monday after nearly two hours of debate.
One bill is aimed at making sure only citizens are able to register to vote. The other would require that those who lack proper documentation take a drivers license test in English.
Proponents, such as bill sponsor Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, said “protecting the integrity of our election process” is the intent of the election reform bill.
As amended, it would allow election registrars to require “satisfactory” proof that a person registering to vote is a U.S. citizen. Currently, election officials can ask for proof of citizenship, but Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, said local election officials want the law to be clarified.
“They’re afraid to ask (for proof of citizenship) because they don’t know what might be inappropriate, and so they don’t ask, and the applicant doesn’t tell,” said Norris.
The legislation allows for registrars to require one of six State-of-Tennessee-issued ID’s be shown to prove citizenship. Proof, however, “shall not be limited to” the six items mentioned in the legislation — a provision in the bill that Democrats say they fear could encourage “profiling.”
“This bill seems to be aimed at ensuring that people aren’t allowed to vote,” said Chattanooga Democrat Andy Berke. “Because of the way somebody looks, or their last name, or whatever it is, the administrator of elections can say, ‘I want to see proof of your citizenship.’ Then that person pulls out their driver’s license…and what’s that administrator going to say? ‘That’s not good enough.'”
Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said the language would give local Tennessee government officials “unbridled discretion” in attempting to determine if an individual is legally qualified to vote in this country.
“A registrar in one county may accept a note from your first-grade teacher,” Jackson suggested. “A registrar in another county may reject that. If the bill will allow unequal application…this is going to run afoul of a lot of constitutional concerns, and I doubt it’s going to survive court challenge.”
Norris countered that it is current law — and not the bill — that is “wide open” and subject to bureaucratic whim and administrative guesswork.
“This is (legislation) brought to us by election officials in the field intended to give them the guidance we think should be sufficient,” Norris countered. “Could they make up something else…if they really don’t want somebody to register on some other issue not related to this legislation? I suppose anything is possible — but if it is, it’s possible today.”
In a stated attempt to try and monitor whether or not registrars profile, Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis attempted to amend the bill to require election administrators to report to the state how many voter registration applications were rejected, and the gender, race, and nationality of those rejected applicants. However, Kyle’s amendment failed.
The overall bill passed 20-12 on largely a party-line vote. The only Democrats voting for the bill were Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden and Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson.
The measure now goes back to the House, which has already passed a different version of the legislation.
Democrats were also the primary opponents of the driver license bill, SB 0063.
Kyle said since the bill codifies what is already current policy that the bill could send a negative message to foreign companies who may look coming to the state.
“We have to ask ourselves…whether we wish to be placed on the list of states that have an English-only driving test — whether that is in the best interest of economic and community development and whether that is in the best interest of our citizens, and I would suggest the answer to that is ‘No,'” he said.
Bills sponsor Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said safety is the main issue behind the push.
“We’ve worked (on this legislation) with businesses and industries, companies, and large manufacturers who have folks who move here from other countries,” said Ketron. “We feel like this is an issue of being able to read the signs in English. There is not a sign from Mountain City to Memphis that is printed in any other language than English.”
There are nine other states that have a similar form of English-only driver license test laws, according to Ketron.
The vote on the bill was 22-10. Democrats voting for the bill were Sens. Berke, Finney, Herron, Jackson, and Charlotte Burks of Monterey.
The companion bill to SB0063 is in the House is in the Budget Subcommittee.