Watson pushes bill that requires voters to prove citizenship or be purged from rolls

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Michael Watson at a candidates’ forum sponsored by MSU’s s Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol Press Corps in October, 2019.

If authorities suspect you are not a U.S. citizen, you could be purged from the voter rolls under a bill that passed a Senate committee Tuesday. 

The measure would allow state election officials to reference state and federal databases — including from the FBI and ICE — to determine whether registered voters could be flagged as possible non-citizens. If individuals under scrutiny do not prove their citizenship within 30 days, they would be removed from voter rolls.

The bill, which Secretary of State Michael Watson requested, does not specify what would constitute evidence that a particular voter might not be a citizen.

“We’d simply be checking to make sure people registered to vote are U.S. citizens,” Watson said during a Senate committee meeting on Tuesday. “The circuit clerk in that county would provide notice to that voter that they have 30 days to prove citizenship… After this 30 day window, if they’re not able to prove (citizenship), they can be purged from the rolls.”

The bill states that driver’s licenses would not qualify as proof of citizenship, meaning voters would have to provide a birth certificate, passport or naturalization document to prove citizenship.

Opponents of the bill on Tuesday said the costs and timing of obtaining those two forms of identification could prevent U.S. citizens from meeting the 30-day threshold to prove citizenship.

This is the worst election bill I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, also a former assistant secretary of state. “It’s radical, it’s dangerous, and it’s un-American. Thousands and thousands of Mississippians who may not turn up in some database will lose their ability and right to vote over this bill.”

Several lawmakers on Tuesday questioned how individuals under citizenship scrutiny would know they were being asked to prove citizenship, as the bill does not explicitly state how that notice would be given.

“Maybe you get the postcard in the mail, maybe you don’t or maybe it gets lost in junk mail,” Blount said. “And then when you go to vote at the polling place you voted last year, you’re not going to be on the rolls and you’re going to have lost your right to vote because you didn’t show up in some database and you didn’t see the postcard or email.”

Watson, who was elected secretary of state in 2019, is a former state senator who championed numerous bills in the Legislature to broadly reform the state’s election laws. He garnered national attention as part of a legal team that sought to invalidate what they called “illegal and fraudulent” African American votes in the 2014 U.S. Senate runoff, arguing that blacks voting in the Republican primary cost state Sen. Chris McDaniel the election against U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

In his 2019 secretary of state campaign, Watson highlighted what he called forms of “illegal” voting. During the campaign he proposed that the state conduct background checks on Mississippians when they register to vote “to confirm legal citizenship,” his campaign website said.

When senators asked why the proof of citizenship bill is necessary, Watson did not offer specific instances of non-U.S. citizens voting in Mississippi, but he spoke about voter fraud more broadly.

“We have reason to believe in the previous race that happened last year that there were actual registered voters who were here illegally,” Watson said, echoing a statement McDaniel made during the meeting about undocumented citizens, but did not provide evidence to support the claim.

The bill passed both the Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee and the Senate Elections Committee on Tuesday, which was the deadline for the bill to pass. It will now move to the Senate calendar, where the entire Senate body will consider it.

Proof of citizenship laws passed in other states have been swiftly challenged in federal court, and the courts have struck down several of them. States such as Florida and Texas have faced federal scrutiny over similar laws. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee have passed similar laws.

The state of Mississippi is currently a defendant in a federal lawsuit related to another proof of citizenship provision in state law.

Mississippi law currently requires that naturalized citizens registering to vote produce a certificate of naturalization. By contrast, residents born in Mississippi must simply check a box while registering to vote to prove they are U.S. citizens.

The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, says the law is unconstitutional because it treats one group of citizens differently from others.