You need to register in order to vote, and some people are trying to make that harder, too

Requiring proof of citizenship on a form designed to make voter registration easier is another way to keep disenfranchised groups from voting

by Sylvia Regan

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, along with more than 15 other organizations working to remove barriers to voting, filed an amicus curiae brief with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the upcoming case, League of Women Voters v. Newby. The League of Women Voters have brought suit against U.S. Election Assistance Commission Executive Director Brian D. Newby for allowing Georgia, Kansas, and Alabama to require proof of citizenship for federal voter registration. Despite previous rulings from the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to keep the form simple, Newby unilaterally approved the requests of these states to add these new requirements without giving the public any opportunity to comment on the change. The League of Women voters argues that his actions violate EAC policy and federal law, and that they make it more difficult for Americans to vote. Asian Americans, as well as other traditionally disenfranchised groups, are particularly burdened by efforts that make registering to vote more difficult.

Voting is a fundamental right in our democracy, yet not all citizens have equal access to voting. Since the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key provisions from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we have seen states like Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, and many more work quickly to pass laws requiring onerous voter identification, limiting early voting periods, and eliminating same day voter registration. Although in the past week federal courts have struck down Wisconsin and Texas laws that created additional barriers to vote, those states’ actions stand in a well-defined pattern of moves by states to suppress votes.

Obstructing access to voter registration further alienates those groups who historically have experienced outright exclusion from the vote and, more recently, are the targets of legislation and processes that seek to discourage and intimidate them from participating in the political process. Only 48.8% of Asian American citizens reported being registered to vote in 2014, compared to 68.1% of white citizens. In Georgia, one of the states affected by the Newby case, this disparity is even larger; only 44.5% of Asian American citizens in the state reported being registered to vote, over 20 points lower than the rate of registration for white citizens.

Asian Americans are a rapidly growing demographic, and the fastest growing racial group in America, driven in large part by an increase of U.S.-born children of immigrants. Still, only 34.4% of Asian American citizens aged 18–24 across the country reported being registered to vote in 2014, compared to 66.9% of whites in the same age range. Young Asian Americans could be an influential force in upcoming elections, but only if they’ve successfully registered to vote. Proof of citizenship requirements, like those approved by Newby, make it harder to remedy the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the electorate.

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 was passed by Congress to redress a history of states imposing discriminatory and burdensome requirements for voter registration which suppressed the vote of traditionally disenfranchised groups. The NVRA simplified the National Mail Voter Registration form, also known as the Federal Form, to make the voter registration process easier and consistent across states. This postcard-sized form is simple and quick to fill out, and comes in a variety of languages, making it perfect for voter registration drives in schools, churches, hospitals, or community events. The only cost of registering with the form is the price of postage, which is often covered by organizations hosting registration drives. The form does not require proof of citizenship beyond a sworn statement, under penalty of perjury, that the applicant is a citizen.

With additional requirements for proof of citizenship, the Federal Form loses its valuable simplicity and financial accessibility. Providing documents to prove citizenship can be extremely burdensome, especially for immigrants, the working class, non-native speakers of English, and rural Americans. The process of replacing a missing or inaccurate birth or naturalization certificate is lengthy and often prohibitively expensive.

“Derivative citizens,” who gained citizenship when their parents naturalized or when they were adopted by citizens are particularly burdened by proof of citizenship laws. Many Asian Americans fall into this category. Derivative citizens often do not apply for their optional certificate of citizenship because they do not anticipate a need for it, and because of the $600 application fee. In the states affected by Newby, $600 is more than two weeks of wages for a minimum wage worker.

In addition to the application fee, applying for these documents costs people a tremendous amount of time and effort. Applicants may be required to visit government offices in person, requiring them to take time — often several days — off of work to travel to the necessary offices. The paperwork is complicated and particularly difficult for people with limited English proficiency. Often, applicants will need outside assistance to navigate the complicated system, find the necessary information, and translate official documents. The time it takes to collect all the necessary documents and travel to the correct government offices, plus the time necessary for processing those applications, means that a potential voter would need to start planning to get their proof of citizenship months, if not years, before an election.

The added requirement for registration makes it difficult for organizations like the League of Women Voters and our affiliate Advancing Justice — Atlanta to hold drives to register large numbers of potential voters. These drives are especially important for Asian Americans, naturalized citizens, and young voters, who all report above-average use of community-based registration. Without burdensome proof of citizenship requirements, drives can serve many applicants, including those who did not plan to register, and mail in all the forms at the end of the day. Few people carry their birth certificate or other proof of citizenship with them to school, church, or community centers, so organizers would be unable to help walk-ups complete the paperwork to register in just one day. Additionally, many organizations are not equipped to help people through the lengthy process of acquiring proof of citizenship.

Newby’s decision to approve the requests for additional proof of citizenship is simply another way to keep certain groups from making their voices heard at the polls. But Asian Americans are not content to be ignored in the political process and we will work to make sure every voice is represented in the elections to come. Read the brief.

Sylvia Regan is a student at Northwestern University and an intern with Advancing Justice | AAJC.

Special thanks to Gisela Camba and Tyler Babich, Summer 2016 Law Clerks with Advancing Justice | AAJC, for their invaluable work on the brief.