News Transparency and Elections

Discussion Continues on Proposal to Tighten Voter Registration Requirements

Democrats worry the legislation will enable local officials to engage in “profiling,” and disenfranchise legitimate voters.

Senate debate over a bill aimed at preventing non-citizens from registering to vote is scheduled to continue today after it was held up in the Senate last week by accusations and counter-accusations that the proposed polices under discussion could lead to racial or ethnic profiling.

The legislation, SB 0194, would require anyone seeking to vote in a Tennessee election to prove they are a citizen of the United States. The current system is based solely on an applicant’s word — they simply check a box on the voter registration form stating that they are indeed a citizen

Supporters of the bill say it will reduce voter fraud.

Democrats worry the legislation will enable local officials to engage in “profiling,” and disenfranchise legitimate voters.

“I truly believe we do not want to be in a situation where people are being profiled, where some people are asked to submit proof and some people are not asked to submit proof,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

Kyle’s suggested solution was to require county election administrators to report to the state on the gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality of anyone who did not include the accepted ways of proving citizenship. It was an idea he offered in the form of an amendment to the bill.

Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron quickly observed that “keeping records of gender, race, nationality, etc.” sounds suspiciously like profiling in its own right.

“If you have papers…you’re here legally, then it’s recorded,” said Ketron. “If you don’t, then you don’t register to vote.”

Nevertheless, Kyle argued that without the reporting requirement included in the amendment, the public will never know “whether (a registrar) is profiling or not profiling.”

Local election officials are “operating in a vacuum,” he said. “The only one who’s going to know is person who got profiled.”

Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, added that she believes Kyle’s amendment “would give us some sort of information and some sort of guidelines where we could judge whether or not the people at the (county) election commission are seriously looking at the voter applications and whether they are rejecting a lot of applications.”

Mike Faulk, a Kingsport Republican, said some groups turn in masses of registration forms after a voter registration drive which could make a county election administrator look like they are profiling when they are not.

He said that at such voter registration drives, the registrar would not meet face-to-face with each person filling out a form, and the sheer volume of forms turned in after a voter registration drive would make it hard for a registrar to have time to check into each one to verify the citizenship information submitted is accurate.

Kyle disagreed, saying the reporting requirement would show whether the election offices are treating people equally.

When dealing with stacks of voter registration forms, he said, it would show whether a registrar decided whether “I’m going to question every third one, or I’m going to question every one, or I’m only going to question the ones where the guy’s name is ‘Jose,'” said Kyle.

A vote on the bill was put off after the sponsor of the original bill, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, voiced concerns that Kyle’s amendment would cost the state money, but agreed to allow Kyle time to do a price check with election officials.

A version of the bill has already passed in the House.

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