After stirring up a bit of controversy last month by approving Commissioner Steve Abernathy's plan to review the citizenship of any recently registered voters who were born outside of the United States, the Davidson County Election Commission dropped the idea yesterday by rescinding its previous vote. They did so on the advice of Metro attorneys, who said that by singling out individual voters for such scrutiny, the review would likely have violated the National Voter Registration Act — commonly known as the motor voter act — and called it "constitutionally suspect."
Having been riled by opposition from immigrant rights groups in town and several recent mass emails from Abernathy — that spoke of saving the country and cited Thomas Jefferson and God as his supporters — a large crowd of citizens on both sides was on hand for the meeting (so large, in fact, that yours truly was left to listen to audio of the proceedings in one of several overflow rooms).
More details from The City Paper, after the jump:
The state is currently undergoing its own review of the voter registration rolls, and commissioners said Thursday they’ve been told to expect the results of that study by the end of April. Abernathy expressed frustration about the three elections — many involving close races — that have taken place over the 14 months the commission has been waiting on the state’s study. But he told reporters that he saw Thursday’s outcome as a victory, because the commission will eventually get the information he was seeking.
“I felt like that it was important that we be able to ensure that our voter rolls are accurate,” he said. “People that are here legally, that haven’t obtained their citizenship, shouldn’t be registered to vote and the motor voter act clearly creates situations where they may in fact have that occur.”
Abernathy said he believes between 3,000 and 10,000 non-U.S. citizens could be unlawfully registered to vote because of what he described as a flawed system. The so-called motor voter act requires states to give individuals the opportunity to register to vote when they go to apply for or renew a driver’s license. As a result, Abernathy said, some immigrants who are in the country legally but have not yet become citizens may register when presented with the opportunity, believing they must be legally allowed to do so. In that case, Abernathy said, legal immigrants might also be unknowingly putting themselves at risk of deportation.
Abernathy cited a number of close races in recent elections that could have been altered by no more than 50 unlawfully cast ballots. He conceded that he can't yet guess how many non-U.S. citizens would have gone on to vote after being registered, but suggested that some individuals may assume they are allowed to vote if they are allowed to register.
Unlike the election commission, the state has the legal authority to compare the voter registration rolls with the Department of Safety information to verify the citizenship of registered voters. Abernathy told reporters yesterday that if the state does not supply a report on their review relatively soon, as promised, then he might consider taking legal action.
Immigrant rights groups were pleased with Thursday's outcome.
“We applaud today’s decision by the Election Commission to protect the citizens of Davidson County,” said Stephanie Teatro, director of advocacy for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “As a county that strives to be world-class and welcoming, we should work to facilitate the civic engagement of New Tennesseans, not create discriminatory barriers to full participation. Today’s reversal is a step in the right direction.”