Posted on November 4, 2004

Millions Vote, But Not All Are Citizens

Rick Lavender, Gainesville Times (Ga.), Nov. 2

Millions will vote today. The question no one can answer is how many are U.S. citizens, the most fundamental eligibility requirement for voting.

Voter registration forms ask, “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” But noncitizens can check “yes” and take advantage of a treasured American privilege because states do not make registrants provide proof of citizenship.

That current of concern is rippling through this election. Record registration drives and a neck-and-neck presidential race, laudable hallmarks of democracy, have sparked claims of ineligible voters, from South Georgia’s Atkinson County to Cincinnati and Newark, N.J.

Georgia, which has a large foreign-born population, is a step ahead. It’s among nine states that require a Social Security number from would-be voters. Challenges involving citizenship are rare here, even lumping in the Atkinson County case.

Yet, it’s unclear how effective the Social Security check is. The fallback remains the form: Registrants who claim citizenship are taking a “self-affirming oath.” Lie and they can be charged with a felony. Trust and threat are the double-edged deterrent.

State Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain, reacted with amazement last week after hearing from a legal resident who is not a citizen but was told she could register to vote.

To Cagle, who is running unopposed today, the situation provided an “unbelievable” revelation. “If people knew that,” he said, “they would be outraged.”

He declined to give the woman’s name.

Anne Phillips, Hall County’s elections director, said new registrants in this county are checked against files listing felony offenders. Felons cannot vote, unless a judge restores the right.

A registered voter can challenge the right of another to vote. As far as citizenship is concerned, that has happened in Hall in recent memory.

When it does, as with the issue earlier this year involving Flowery Branch mayoral hopeful Robin Carlisle’s residency in the city, it’s up to the challenger to provide the evidence.

For example, a challenge questioning the citizenship of 96 Latino voters in Atkinson County failed last week because those making the claim offered no proof.

In Georgia, new voters don’t have to show identification if they register in person, such as at the library or health department.

They must, however, bring accepted identification to the polls. If signing up by mail or via online, that identification is required up front.

The Social Security requirement “will flag bogus Social Security numbers,” said Kara Sinkule, a spokeswoman with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

It could not be determined Monday, though, as Sinkule and others fielded a flood of elections calls to the state office, if the check catches Social Security numbers issued to noncitizens or what the lag is between registration and running the numbers.

The Social Security Administration issues about 17.5 million new or replacement cards nationwide each year, said Frank Viera, of the administration’s regional office in Atlanta.

Noncitizens can acquire a number, but they must show proof they’re in the country legally. Viera said the number format doesn’t distinguish between who is or isn’t a citizen.

He also said he wasn’t sure if data on whom gets which type of card is supplied to states.

Basically, federal law requires asking about citizenship, but leaves proving it to specific instances, according to Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a Texas-based association of election and voter registration officials.

Any proposed change must steer clear of discrimination, convince the major parties to agree to a solution and, maybe most important, deal with the unwieldy practicality of proving who is a citizen.

“The thought of asking 170 million Americans to show up with their birth certificates is daunting,” Lewis said.

So it’s back to the application. “What you do, because our system has always been built on trust, is you ask the question.”

One version of the Help America Vote Act that passed Congress in 2002 would have done more. An original provision said all states would require Social Security numbers from new voters, Lewis said.

The aim was to move toward a uniform identification system tied into areas of federal involvement, such as passing an airport screening.

A revamped version of the measure, however, subbed in driver’s license numbers, the last four digits of the Social Security number or a “unique identification” a state can designate.