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Eligible to Vote in Arizona? Prove It

A new law requires evidence of citizenship. Thousands of legal residents are in a bind.

November 05, 2005|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — A stringent new voter identification law being put into effect in Arizona -- designed to keep illegal immigrants from voting -- will also prevent thousands of legitimate voters from casting ballots Tuesday, election officials say.

Proposition 200, which voters approved last year, requires Arizonans to prove U.S. citizenship to register to vote and to show a photo ID at the polls.

The law put this border state at the edge of a nationwide push to tighten screening at the polls: fifteen states now require ID at polling places, but no other state requires documentation of citizenship in order to register.

It's a movement that advocates say is long overdue to prevent election fraud, but which critics say will decrease voter turnout and has already disenfranchised thousands of Arizona voters.

In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, more than 10,000 people trying to register have been rejected for being unable to prove their citizenship. Yvonne Reed, a spokeswoman for the recorder's office, said Friday that most probably are U.S. citizens whose married names differ from their birth certificates or who have lost documentation.

Reed said she hoped the number of rejected voters would shrink as election officials explained the new requirements. But, she said, "there will be an amount of people who we will not be able to get on the rolls because of not being able to find the right documents or just losing interest."

In Pima County, home to Tucson, 60% of those who tried to register initially could not. Chris Roads, chief deputy recorder and registrar, said all appeared to be U.S. citizens but many had moved to Arizona recently and couldn't access birth certificates or passports.

Many of those prospective voters have since been able to register, but Roads said about 1,000 citizens were still unable to vote in Tuesday's election because of Proposition 200 requirements. "The biggest bloc of people who are impacted are the legitimate citizens," Roads said.

Any change of address -- people moving from outside the state or those moving within Arizona -- triggers the registration requirement.

Advocates of the new law contend that it has been too easy to exercise the most important right of an American citizen. They and state officials who support it argue that legitimate voters will not be harmed once citizens understand the law.

"There's been so much laxity introduced in the voting process by litigation and political cowardice," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We're hoping Proposition 200 will change this course."

Backers of the proposition cite the discovery this summer of 159 noncitizens on the voting rolls of Maricopa County. Helen Purcell, the county recorder, said the 159 cases all involve legal immigrants who misunderstood voting requirements and were sometimes registered by overeager canvassers or political groups.

Andrew Thomas, the newly elected county attorney who supported Proposition 200, has charged 10 of the immigrants with felonies.

Among those charged is Israel Rivera.

A soft-spoken father of six, Rivera registered to vote last year and said he cast his ballot for President Bush because the president "believes in Christian ways." But Rivera is not a U.S. citizen. He is a legal immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 35 years.

Rivera said a woman approached him outside the Department of Motor Vehicles office in March 2004 and invited him to register to vote. The woman filled out the voter registration form, Rivera said, including the part where he affirmed he was a U.S. citizen. Rivera, 55, didn't think his immigration status would be an issue.

"I've lived here so many years and I always try not to break the law," Rivera said in the driveway of his South Phoenix home, with a hand-painted banner overhead reading "Jesus I Thank You."

Immigrant advocates say Rivera's case demonstrates why Proposition 200 is excessive.

"This is not a case of fraud," said Nina Perales, southwestern legal counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is suing to overturn Proposition 200. "Cutting out thousands and thousands of registered voters because some people have been erroneously registered is not the right response."

Officials who monitor election laws say that proposals have been introduced in at least a dozen states, including California, to tighten ID requirements.

There has often been a partisan edge to the legislation -- the bills typically introduced by Republicans, who are believed to benefit from lower voter turnout, and opposed by Democrats, who theoretically prosper when immigrants and poor people with little identification vote.

California Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico) said he just wanted to tighten security at the polls by having voters show identification, but the Democrat-controlled Legislature killed his bill this year, citing fears of disenfranchisement.

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