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Elections: Voting Rights

Democracy is only possible when all people eligible to vote are provided the opportunity to do so without any undue hardships.

In this section, we report news related to voting rights.

Related Issues

Voting Rights

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Senate Republicans block another voting rights bill

2021-Oct-20  (Updated: 2021-Oct-26)By: Barry Shatzman

A voting rights bill in the Senate would ensure that every eligible voter could vote and their vote would be counted in a verifiable way. It would ensure they are fairly represented in Congress. It would help inform them about who is contributing large amounts to a candidate while stopping illegal contributions from non-Americans.

Senate Republicans are blocking it. In fact they aren't even allowing it to be debated.

On Oct. 20, all 50 Senate Republicans voted to keep filibustering the Freedom to Vote Act. The bill is supported by all 50 Democrats in the evenly divided Senate (Democrat Charles Schumer voted no for procedural reasons).

Based on that vote, if the bill were to be voted on today it would pass because Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote. Under current Senate rules, however, it takes 60 votes to allow a debate and subsequent vote to take place.

What's in the bill

The bill contains numerous provisions to remove barriers to voting that several Republican-led states enacted after the 2021 presidential election - which former President Donald Trump falsely insisted was fraudulent despite producing no evidence to support any of his claims.

It is a smaller version of the For the People Act, which passed the House of Representatives but also is being blocked by Republicans in the senate. Among its provisions:

o States would need to provide easy access to voting such as mail-in ballots, drop boxes, and early voting.

o Protects voters from having their registrations incorrectly cancelled by fraudulent techniques such as voter caging.

o Makes campaign financing more transparent, and makes it more difficult for foreign nationals to illegally influence elections.

o Enhances procedures to ensure that every vote counts as the voter intended.

o Helps eliminate gerrymandering when states determine their Congressional districts.

The future of this bill

If this bill passes the Senate, it is likely to pass in the House of Representatives and be signed by the president.

There are two paths available for it to pass the Senate. If 10 Republican senators agree to support the bill, it can overcome the filibuster and be voted on by the full Senate. If that does not happen, the 50 Democratic senators can agree to change the Senate's rules to eliminate the filibuster - either in general or for just this bill.

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Supreme Court upholds AZ voting restrictions

2021-Jul-01  (Updated: 2021-Jul-08)By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court has upheld voting restrictions in Arizona that disproportionally impact minorities.

One of the restrictions requires Arizonans who vote in person on election day to vote at their assigned precinct only - or their vote likely will not be counted.

The other makes it a felony to collect someone else's ballot to turn in unless they are their caregiver or a member of their family or household.

The lawsuit claims those restrictions violate Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Alito: Out-of-precinct votes only small percentage

In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito noted that the requirement to vote only in one's own precinct exists equally to all voters. And - although Black, Latino, and Native American voters were twice as likely to vote at the wrong precinct than White voters - the total still amounted to less than 2 percent of Arizona's ballots.

"A policy that appears to work for 98 percent or more of voters ... is unlikely to render a system unequally open," he wrote.

The restriction, however, does create a racial disparity, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent. One reason, she wrote, is that Arizona moves polling places in Black and Latino neighborhoods far more often than in White ones. And minority voters were more often assigned to polling places other than the ones closest to their homes.

Though the percentage of voters affected is small, it can change an election's outcome, she wrote. The 2020 presidential election in Arizona was decided by fewer than 11,000 votes. That's less than the out-of-precinct votes the state had discarded in two of the prior three presidential elections.

"For that reason, we held that even 'a small minority' group can claim Section 2 protection," she wrote.

Arizona's Native Americans rely on third-party ballot collection

Alito wrote that the restriction on who can collect ballots "applies equally to all voters and does not impose burdens beyond those traditionally associated with voting."

The problem with that, Kagan wrote, is Arizona's unique rural Native American communities that can be located several hours from a mailbox. Up to half of these households do not own a car. So it has become standard practice for many of them to rely on the assistance of fellow clan members to collect and deliver their ballots.

Fraud a valid concern, but typically used as an excuse

Alito wrote that a state may enact laws to protect its interests - including the prevention of fraud. Even without evidence of fraud in Arizona, "a state may take action to prevent election fraud without waiting for it to occur and be detected within its own borders," he wrote.

Kagen agreed that a state may enact laws to serve its interests. But "only if a less discriminatory rule will not attain the state's goal."

She wrote, however, that everything from poll taxes to voter intimidation was created under the cover of "preserving the purity of the ballot box and facilitating honest elections."

"Throughout American history, election officials have asserted anti-fraud interests in using voter suppression laws," she wrote.

She also pointed out that, "no fraud involving ballot collection has ever come to light in the State."

Intent is not relevant

In supporting the laws, Alito wrote that they do not violate the Voting Rights Act because they were not enacted with a racially discriminatory intent.

Kagan noted in her dissent that the Department of Justice stopped more than a thousand discriminatory changes requested by states before the Supreme Court nullified the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. But from the very day that decision was issued in 2013, states began announcing policies that previously had been rejected.

This is why the Voting Rights Act covers impact rather than intent, she wrote.

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Voting rights bill blocked by Senate Republicans

2021-Jun-22  (Updated: 2021-Jun-28)By: Barry Shatzman

A bill that would protect the voting rights of Americans is being blocked by Senate Republicans.

The For the People Act sets minimum standards for federal elections that would make it easier to vote and prevent states from restricting voting rights of eligible voters.

Making voting easier

The bill would require states to support voting by mail in most cases.

Voters who choose to vote in person would find almost no waits. Polling places would be open at least two weeks before election day, and would be open beyond standard working hours. They would be located near public transportation and in rural areas.

Election Day would be a public holiday.

Protecting voter registrations

States would be prevented from disqualifying eligible voters. Tactics such as voter caging would be prohibited. Tools shown to discriminate against minority voters such as the one known as Crosscheck also would be prohibited.

To challenge a voter's eligibility an election official would need to assert a factual basis for doing so.

Provisional ballots would be required to be counted once a voters eligibility is confirmed.

States that require a photo ID to vote would be required to accept a sworn affidavit from the voter that they are eligible to vote.

Congressional districts would be fairly determined

The bill would combat gerrymandering by requiring that states use independent commissions to determine their Congressional districts - rather than partisan legislatures.

Enhanced election security

Voting machines would have to be made in the United States.

Measures would be taken to prevent hacking - including the use of "ethical hackers" to discover and report vulnerabilities.

Bill outlines better ethics

The bill would increase the ethical requirements for elected representatives and administrative officials.

It contains a version of the DISCLOSE Act, which requires candidates for federal office to disclose their large donors - including those from foreign sources.

The president, vice president, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices would be restricted from participating in businesses related to their government responsibilities.

The president and vice president (as well as major party candidates for those offices) would be required to disclose the prior 10 years' tax returns for themselves and businesses they own.

Bill is being blocked in the Senate

The For the People Act passed the House on March 3, but Senate Republicans are filibustering it - meaning 60 senators will need to clear it in order for the Senate to debate and vote on it.

The June 22 cloture vote that would have allowed to bill to proceed was 50-50 - with every Republican voting against it.

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GA law could influence and overturn elections

2021-Mar-25By: Barry Shatzman

Georgia has enacted a voting law that will make it more difficult to vote. Assuming a voter isn't wrongly removed from the voting rolls.

But that might not even matter. The law also could pave the way for partisan appointees to overturn a result they don't like.

Making it harder to vote

Those who work during the day will find it less convenient to vote.

Voters wanting to vote by mail will have less time to request a ballot. The requirements for filling out the ballot are more complex, and voters failing to follow the complex identification requirements could have their ballots disqualified. Previously, voter support groups could pre-fill the applications for voters. That now is forbidden.

In metropolitan areas the number of ballot drop boxes will be reduced by about two-thirds. Instead of being located outdoors with 24-hour availability, they now will be placed inside government buildings and could be unavailable during non-business hours.

Mobile voting centers - which provide voting at libraries, parks, and churches - now are prohibited.

Early voting will be available for 4 weeks before an election - but is only required to be available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Counties may extend those hours, but only for two hours earlier and later. Two Saturdays are required, and counties can opt to allow voting two Sundays as well.

Thirstier voters

Anyone who is not an election worker cannot provide food and water - or any assistance - to voters waiting in line. Poll workers may set up self-service water stations.

Long lines are more common in poorer areas - especially those with more minorities - that tend to vote for Democrats. In the 2016 election, more than half a million people left the line and did not vote.

Also, voters can vote only at their assigned precinct. If a voter shows up to vote at a different precinct, it is likely that their ballot won't be counted.

Removing voters

Under the law, any voter may challenge the legitimacy of any other voter's registration. Once that happens, the challenged voter must defend their legal right to vote.

The provision already has been used to challenge - without cause - the registrations of hundreds of thousands of voters.

Overturning an election

The law's effects carry on even after the voting. The state legislature - dominated by Republicans - now can replace county election officials - even in those counties with Democratic majorities.

County election boards are responsible for challenging voters' eligibility, polling place operations, and certifying an election's results.

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Florida law restricting felon voting upheld

2020-Sep-11  (Updated: 2020-Sep-23)By: Barry Shatzman

The 11th District Court of Appeals has upheld a Florida law requiring felons to pay off all fines before being allowed to register to vote.

The decision overturns a district court ruling In May that the law is unconstitutional.

85,000 former felons who had previously registered to vote will be allowed to vote because Florida has yet to screen their registrations. An estimated 750,000, however, will risk prosecution if they register and it later is determined their fines and fees had not been paid.

Majority: Fees are not taxes, State has no obligation to assist

In his majority opinion, Chief Judge William Pryor wrote that Florida voters may have intended the requirement in the first place.

"The people of Florida could rationally conclude that felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, including paying their fines, fees, costs, and restitutions, are more likely to responsibly exercise the franchise than those who have not."

He also dismissed arguments that the law is unconstitutional because only those who cannot afford to pay their fines are excluded from registering, that most cannot not afford the fines, and the state has no way to even determine how much is owed.

"States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts," he wrote.

Dissenting judge: State is denying due process

In her dissent, Judge Beverly Martin wrote that citizens are being denied due process when the state "ultimately throws up its hands and denies citizens their ability to vote because the State can't figure out the outstanding balances it is requiring those citizens to pay."

Controversy surrounding judges

Of the ten judges involved in the ruling, five had been appointed by President Donald Trump.

Two of those judges, Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, refused to recuse themselves despite previously participating in the case while they were state judges.

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Supreme Court keeps Florida ex-felons out of voting booth

2020-Jul-16  (Updated: 2020-Aug-18)By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court for now will allow Florida to prevent former felons from registering to vote.

In 2018, Floridians overwhelmingly voted to allow felons who had completed their sentences to vote. The Florida Legislature then passed a law requiring those ex-felons to pay off all fines related to their conviction before being allowed to register.

Many fees are taxes - which can't disqualify voters

In May 2020, a U.S. district court ruled the law unconstitutional. The court also imposed an injunction to prevent Florida from enforcing the law until the case had completed the appeals process.

Injunction lifted, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg dissent

On July 1, 2020, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction without providing an explanation, meaning that most of Florida's former felons likely would be unable to vote in the 2020 presidential primary.

Of the 10 judges participating in the ruling, 5 were appointed by President Donald Trump.

Two weeks later, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate the injunction.

The court provided no explanation. However, in dissent, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote, "This Court's order prevents thousands of otherwise eligible voters from participating in Florida's primary election simply because they are poor."

Next steps

On Aug. 18, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the case. Whatever the outcome, the case likely will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

However, if the two courts' refusal to allow the injunction is an indication, it is unlikely that most of Florida's 1 million former felons will be able to register to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

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U.S. Court: Florida felon voter law unconstitutional

2020-May-24By: Barry Shatzman

A U.S. district court has ruled that Florida's law preventing felons from voting unless they had completely paid their fines is unconstitutional.

Calling the law a "pay-to-vote" system, Judge Robert Hinkle wrote that the law violates the Constitution's 24th Amendment in that it prevents people from voting merely because they cannot pay a tax.

Many of the fines are taxes, he wrote, in that they merely fund government operations rather than being punitive or providing restitution.

Most would never be able to pay

Approximately 750,000 former felons - 3 out of every 4 - would not qualify to vote due to outstanding legal financial obligations (LFOs), political science professor Daniel A. Smith estimated in expert testimony.

There also is a racial element. Black individuals are almost 10 percent less likely to owe nothing than comparable white individuals, Smith reported.

Can't even determine fees

Even if they could pay, it is impossible for most former felons to even determine how much they owe due to the way Florida accounts for and documents fines and fees. In many cases the state itself does not have the information.

"If the clerks themselves are unable to provide this information, how is an individual, an advocacy group, or a Supervisor of Elections supposed to confirm if all LFOs have been paid by an individual attempting to register to vote?" Smith wrote.

Hinkle also imposed an injunction to prevent Florida from enforcing the law until the case had completed the appeals process.

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Florida law could keep a million ex-felons from voting

2019-Jun-28  (Updated: 2019-Jul-02)By: Barry Shatzman

Florida's governor has signed SB-7066 - a bill that will make it difficult for more than a million ex-felons to vote.

In 2018, the state's voters voted by a 2-1 margin to restore the voting rights of felons who had completed their sentences.

In early 2019, the Repbulican-led state legislature proposed bills that would limit the effect. The new law requires that ex-felons pay all fines and fees before being allowed to vote. Fees can be in the thousands of dollars, and ex-felons often are among the least able to pay.

Lawsuit challenges law's constitutionality

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is seeking to stop the law, saying it "unconstitutionally denies the right to vote to returning citizens with a past felony conviction based solely on their inability to pay outstanding fines, fees, or restitution."

It claims that voter registration for ex-felons will be further limited because Florida does not have a system to accurately record data on the payments. That would violate the Constitution's 14th Amendment, the ACLU claims, because it leaves citizens unable to determine if they're eligible to vote, or to defend against challenges to their eligibility.

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Florida looks to constrict new ex-felon voting rights

2019-Mar-27By: Barry Shatzman

In November, 65 percent of Florida voters said convicted felons who had completed their sentences should be allowed to vote.

The state's legislature now has introduced bills to have that help as few people as possible.

Types of crimes restricted would be expanded

The initiative Florida voters passed excludes those convicted of murder and "felony sexual offenses".

Among the provisions of bills being sponsored by Florida Republican legislators...

o Expand the definition of "murder" to include attempted murder

o Include in the definition of "felony sexual offenses" non-violent crimes including prostitution and placing an adult entertainment store within 1/2 mile of a school.

More would be excluded by non-court fees

Even more restrictive, felons would be required to pay all fees related to the offense before being allowed to vote.

Under the previous system, felons needed to have paid all court costs and restitution imposed by the court. The new legislation would expand that to fees that are not part of a sentence - such as fees to...

o Obtain a public defender
o Cover medical costs in prison
o Pay for probation supervision
o Pay for drug testing and ankle GPS monitors
o Reinstate a driver's license.

These costs can add up to thousands of dollars - an impossible amount for many to pay. And Florida uses private debt-collection agencies - which can increase the amount owed by 40 percent. Over the previous five years, less than 20 percent of money from such fees was paid back.

Political considerations?

The bills are being sponsored by Republican legislators.

An analysis by two Florida media organizations showed that more than half of former felons identified as Democrats. while fewer than 15 percent identified as Republican.

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Florida now allows ex-felons to vote

2018-Nov-07  (Updated: 2019-Jan-08)By: Barry Shatzman

More than a million Florida residents who had been convicted of felonies now can have their voting rights restored.

Florida voters on Nov. 6 passed an initiative to automatically allow felons who have completed their sentences to vote. The initiative - referred to on the state's ballot as Amendment 4 - excludes those who have been convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

More than 10 percent of voting-age Floridians had been prevented from voting because of felony convictions.

Prior to this, felons who had completed their sentences had to follow an application process that could take up to a decade just to receive a decision. Approximately 90 percent of the applications processed under the system were rejected. The process was implemented by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who also was the Republican candidate for the Senate in this election (Scott later was declared the winner).

Update 2019-Jan-8: Former felons now can sign up to vote.

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Tool helps convicted felons regain their vote

2018-Aug-26By: Barry Shatzman

The right of convicted felons to vote is the one aspect of voting rights that varies widely from state to state.

Felony disenfranchisement prohibits approximately 6 million convicted felons from voting, according to the Campaign Legal Center. However, millions more might not vote because they aren't aware they're allowed to, or what steps they need to take to enable their voting rights. An online tool from the organization helps them take the needed steps.

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Supreme Court - NC districts unfair to black voters

2017-May-22By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court has ruled that two of North Carolina's voting districts were designed to limit minority representation in Congress.

North Carolina has two districts with predominantly black voters. When the state's legislature created new congressional districts after the 2010 census, the number of black voters increased from 49 to 53 percent in one of those districts, and from 44 to 51 percent in the other.

By concentrating more black voters into those districts, their representation was diluted in the others.

Such forms of racial gerrymandering have been determined to violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

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Supreme Court - VA districts race-based

2017-Mar-01By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court has ruled that Virginia's voting districts were designed to limit minority representation in the state's government.

When they created new state districts, some districts were designed to have exceptionally high concentrations of black voters - contributing to fewer state legislators they might choose.

Such forms of racial gerrymandering have been determined to violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

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Virginia restores voting rights to past felons

2016-Apr-22By: Barry Shatzman

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has issued an executive order that will allow felons who have completed their sentences to vote.

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Supreme Court - AL districts unfair to blacks

2015-Mar-25By: Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court has ruled that Alabama's voting districts were designed to limit minority representation in Congress.

When Alabama created new congressional district, some districts were designed to have exceptionally high concentrations of black voters - contributing to a smaller number of representatives in Congress they might choose.

Such forms of racial gerrymandering have been determined to violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

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Supreme Court nullifies key part of Voting Rights Act

2013-Jun-27  (Updated: 2013-Aug-25)By: Rob Dennis and Barry Shatzman

The Supreme Court ruled on June 25 that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 violates the Constitution.

The act calls for states and congressional districts with a history of voting discrimination to pre-clear any changes to their voting practices with the federal government.

The court did not rule pre-clearance (referred to as Section 5 of the law) unconstitutional. It also acknowledged that voter discrimination still exists. It ruled, however, that the formula used to select jurisdictions for pre-clearance (those with track records of discrimination as specified in Section 4 of the act) was outdated and unfair.

The court left it up to Congress to come up with a new formula to designate jurisdictions. Until that happens, any state or district can change their voting practices without the need to have the change pre-cleared by the federal government.

Until this ruling, the Voting Rights Act has been one of the most successful laws in U.S. history. Within its first year, more than a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered. Click here to see more of how voter registration increased in the long term since it was enacted.

While the Voting Rights Act has had measurable results, that success is no reason to believe it has outlived its usefulness, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent.

"Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet," she wrote.

Old discrimination tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests remain illegal. But attempts to disenfranchise minority voters have not ended. The methods simply take on new forms...

o In 2012, a Texas school district attempted to shorten - without notice - the terms of three incumbent minority candidates, while changing the qualification timeframe so they would not be able to run for re-election. The federal government refused to pre-clear the changes - hence they did not take effect.

o In 2003, a Texas county announced it would eliminate all five polling places that served a predominantly-Latino part of San Antonio. The federal government refused to pre-clear the changes - hence they did not take effect.

o In 2001, the white mayor and all-white Board of Aldermen in a Mississippi town tried to cancel an election after black citizens became a majority of registered voters. The town refused to have the election until the Department of Justice required it in 2003.

o Voter identification laws are being enacted or considered in several states. The restrictions can disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minority voters - in spite of there being little evidence of the problem they are purported to fix.

In the past 15 years, the Department of Justice has turned down 86 requests for election changes - 31 of which were after Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006.

But these numbers understate the problem. Between 1999 and 2005, more than 250 changes were withdrawn or replaced by altered submissions after the Department of Justice requested more information. Without Section 5, voters' only recourse is to challenge the rules in court. This is impractical for several reasons, states a Brennan Center for Justice report on the implications of Section 5 falling...

o Once an election is over, the harm generally cannot be reversed.

o Even if an injunction can be obtained, a jurisdiction can try again with a similar new tactic, resulting in additional costs to challenge. Section 5 pre-clearance requirements prevent this from happening.

"Without a system of pre-clearance, the public might not even know about such changes sufficiently in advance of an election to seek relief from the courts," the report states.

Shortly after the decision was announced, the Texas attorney general said the state's voter ID law, which the Department of Justice and a federal court had blocked, will take effect immediately.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito comprised the majority in the 5-4 decision.

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Restrictive Arizona voter registration law overturned

2013-Jun-18By: Rob Dennis

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can't demand proof of citizenship from people registering to vote.

The 7-2 decision overturns an Arizona law requiring citizens to provide a driver's license issued after 1996, a U.S. birth certificate, and a passport or similar document in order to register. The law - Proposition 200 - was passed by voters in 2004.

The court ruled that the law violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to accept a federal voter registration postcard that requires only the voter's signed oath that he or she is a citizen.

If a state wants to introduce extra requirements to its voter registration process, it first must obtain permission from the Election Assistance Commission.

Those who support more stringent requirements say they're needed to prevent ineligible voters from casting votes. But there has never been a case of a non-citizen being prosecuted for using the federal form. The appeals court that originally overturned the Arizona law stated, "Arizona has not provided persuasive evidence that voter fraud in registration procedures is a significant problem in Arizona; moreover, the NVRA includes safeguards addressing voter fraud.?

Restrictions such as Arizona's do, however, keep millions of people nationwide off of the voting rolls. A 2006 survey by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that 7 percent of American citizens lack the required documents to prove their citizenship. In a statement Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union said that, of the 31,000 U.S. citizens in Arizona whose voter registration applications were denied, 90 percent were born in the United States.

The majority of those without documentation tend to be low-income or minorities.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has lobbied other states to adopt Arizona's law. Four of those states - Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, and Tennessee - already have adopted similar laws.

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