Voting ID bill dies in committee

May get new life in House
The Colorado Statesman

A bill that would require voters to prove citizenship when they register to vote died in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Wednesday afternoon on a 3-2 party-line vote. Senate Bill 18 pitted Tea Partiers against advocates for the disabled, seniors, victims of domestic violence and the poor, and prompted one pro-SB 18 witness to hint that those who can’t afford their birth certificates are just out of luck. And despite the bill’s defeat, the issue isn’t dead at the state capitol, with a pledge from its House sponsor that another version is on the way.

SB 18 sponsor Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said that under current law, voters are not required to prove they are U.S. citizens. When voters register, they only need to check a box on the form that certifies that they are legally eligible to vote. “It’s a public integrity issue,” Harvey told the state affairs committee. “The citizens of our state should never question if their vote is being canceled or diluted by the votes of individuals who are not legally eligible to participate in our voting system.”

Under SB 18, those who apply to register to vote must produce either a U.S. passport, birth certificate, a U.S. naturalization document or its number, or any other proof allowed under federal immigration law.

Harvey said about 150 people have contacted the Secretary of State’s office to say they were registered but shouldn’t have been because they were not legal U.S. residents. Some had been registered through forms provided by human services agencies when they signed up for benefits, Harvey said.

This bill just codifies in statute what “most people already believe is in current practice,” he explained.

Testifying in opposition to SB 18, Ed Kahn of the Colorado Center for Law and Policy said that low-income and elderly people may have difficulty obtaining their birth certificates. “We see this bill as an unnecessary deterrent to low-income people,” Kahn said.

Jesse Ulibarri of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that the bill would impose an unconstitutional poll tax, and violates the National Voting Rights Act. He also pointed out that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California struck down a similar law in Arizona last year, and passage of SB 18 would likely lead to a costly court fight here. Ulibarri also said the cost of a passport is $135; and the cost of a birth certificate, including shipping and handling, could reach more than $65. “No eligible citizen should pay for the right to vote,” Ulibarri said.

Victims of domestic violence often flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs, and important documents, such as birth certificates, are often left behind, according to Amy Miller of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And those documents are often kept or even destroyed by their abusive partners, she said, and SB 18 would create “an unnecessary burden” for abused women.

The League of Women Voters also opposed SB 18. Carol Tone of LWV said the bill poses a “serious threat to the rights of American voters,” noting that 7 percent of voters do not have ready access to the documents listed in SB 18. In addition, “there’s little evidence of voter fraud” that would lead to the need for SB 18, and there are already penalties in place for registering to vote fraudulently, she said.

Young people, including college students, also would be negatively impacted by SB 18’s requirements, according to Rob DuRay of New Era Colorado. He pointed to a study that said 25 percent of those in the 18-29 age group lack access to the documents listed in SB 18. The bill also doesn’t address how to deal with verification by third-parties who hold voter registration drives, he said.

People with disabilities and seniors also could be impacted by the bill, which carries “unintended consequences,” according to Faith Gross of the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Senior Citizens.

Proof of citizenship was cited as a top priority during the 2010 campaign for Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who testified in support of SB 18 at Wednesday’s hearing. He told the committee the voter registration system is “vulnerable.” In a comparison of databases for the Department of Motor Vehicle and voter registration rolls, nearly 16,000 people showed up as non-citizens on the voter rolls, including 13,000 resident aliens. He also cited several examples of people who showed up to vote during the past five years but weren’t citizens and hence not eligible. “I’m sensitive to the concerns about people wanting to vote,” Gessler said, hinting he would be open to compromise on the issue. “There is a problem in Colorado that needs to be addressed.”

Nancy Rumfelt of the 9/12 Coalition said that the fact that some people don’t have the money to buy a birth certificate from other states, doesn’t negate their responsibility to get one if they want to vote. That sentiment was echoed by Beverly McAdam of Arvada, who said people who can’t find their birth certificates should “take some responsibility and find it!”

That was enough for Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, who said she had constituents, including seniors, who “have issues” with finding their birth certificates, especially from other states. In some states, those records no longer exist, she said. “Not everyone has access.”

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams discounted the bill’s fiscal note analysis, which said that the cost of implementing SB 18 could be as much as $50,000 for a mid-sized county. The estimate is “ridiculously large,” Williams said, and he also pointed out that the bill applies only to new registrations, not current ones.

After Williams’ remarks, however, the tone of witnesses to follow became more fervent, and according to one witness, included statements that were “lacking in compassion.”

“A few handful who can’t get their birth certificates” doesn’t balance out the rights of everyone else to vote, said Mary Tuneberry of Westminster, who added that this issue makes the United States “the laughingstock of the world on its citizenship.” Penny Snow of Loveland said the 7 percent who can’t afford to buy birth certificates have “no room to complain” about how things are run, and voting should be left to the 93 percent who “should be allowed to be here.”

And one witness said the bill didn’t go far enough. Bob Brownlee of Thornton pointed out the bill allows for photocopies of birth certificates, which he said could be altered with computer programs. He called for those copied documents to be certified and for penalties for registering fraudulently to be increased.

Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, suggested the state provide free birth certificates rather than going through the higher expense of prosecuting those who register fraudulently — and he joked that Gessler could use surplus funds in his office to provide those documents.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, one of the committee’s three Democrats who voted the bill down, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem” and noted that there are too many people already excluded from participating in the voting process. “If I’m going to err, I’m going to err for allowing people to vote,” added committee Chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

While SB 18 is dead in the Senate, it isn’t going away anytime soon. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, told The Colorado Statesman after the hearing that he has a bill title in reserve that would resuscitate the issue. However, Holbert said his bill would be modeled more after one passed in Georgia that he said passed federal muster.

Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause, who testified against SB 18, told The Statesman what was striking to her was testimony from proponents that showed “a lack of compassion for those who don’t have the means for documentation to vote. We heard compelling testimony from groups who work with those individuals,” testimony that said it’s a difficult process to find that documentation — “time-consuming, onerous and expensive,” Nunez said. The supporters believe “if you can’t afford it, you don’t have a right to vote” — and that’s the definition of a poll tax, she added.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com