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Gov. Reeves Signs Law Requiring Citizenship Checks For Voting in Mississippi

a photo of Governor Tate Reeves looking straight into the camera with an American and Mississippi flag behind him
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed House Bill 1510 into law on Thursday, April 14, 2022, claiming in a message that it will “ensure only American citizens are voting in our state’s elections and determining our representatives.” Screencap courtesy Gov. Tate Reeves

Mississippi may be less likely to wrongly remove naturalized immigrants from the voting rolls under a new bill Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law today. The Republican governor, however, is depicting the law as an “election integrity” measure designed to “ensure only American citizens are voting in our state’s elections and determining our representatives.”

“The right to vote is sacred, and it must be protected. The only individuals who should determine American policy are American citizens. House Bill 1510 takes the extra step of verifying voter registrations,” Gov. Reeves said as he signed the bill in a video shared on his social media channels.

Under the new law, the Mississippi secretary of state must confirm that a new voter-registration applicant is an American citizen by cross-referencing two databases: the Mississippi Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license and identification system and the federal Systematic Alien Verification For Entitlements database, also known as SAVE.

‘Fewer People Will Be Wrongly Flagged’

The Mississippi secretary of state already cross-references the state database, but not the federal one. In a federal lawsuit that began in 2019, however, the Mississippi Center For Justice said that information in the state DPS database is often out of date. Using the Mississippi DPS information risks removing people from the voter rolls who are citizens now but were not when they obtained their license or ID as noncitizens, MCJ argued.

MCJ attorney Rob McDuff told the Mississippi Free Press today that the new law Reeves signed improves the system because the federal SAVE database is more current than the state DPS database. (Editor’s Note: McDuff and the Mississippi Center for Justice are also representing the Mississippi Free Press and reporter Nick Judin in an unrelated open-meetings challenge of the Mississippi House of Representatives.)

As a candidate for secretary of state in 2019, Michael Watson vowed to implement a citizenship flagging system for new voter registrants. Photo by Ashton Pittman

“Everybody understands that American citizenship is required in order to register to vote,” McDuff said today. “House Bill 1510 improves the secretary of state’s database matching program by adding a second and more up-to-date database so that fewer people will be wrongly flagged as non-citizens, and the accuracy of the voter registration process will be improved.”

Under the law, if both the state DPS and SAVE databases flag a voter as a noncitizen, the person will have 30 days to submit proof of citizenship to their local county clerk. If a person fails to submit proof and attempts to vote, they can cast an affidavit ballot, but must provide proof of citizenship within five days afterward for the vote to count.

H.B. 1510 also repeals a 1924 law requiring naturalized citizens to prove their citizenship upon registering to vote by presenting their certificate of naturalization. The 2019 MCJ lawsuit challenged that law, saying it made voting harder for naturalized immigrants than other American citizens.

“In light of the passage of this bill which resolves the problems we identified in the lawsuit, we will be dismissing the case,” McDuff said.

On April 5, Daily Journal reporter Taylor Vance reported that Mississippi House Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, who authored H.B. 1510, modeled it after a similar Ohio law. Vance noted that, in 2020, Ohio flagged only 13 possible cases in which noncitizens may have attempted to vote out of 6 million voters.

“Voting by non-citizens is not a problem in Mississippi,” McDuff told the Mississippi Free Press. “The only problem was the flawed database the secretary of state was using to address this non-existent problem. Fortunately, H.B. 1510 will decrease the number of false flags coming from that process.”

While running for office in 2019, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson vowed to flag citizenship status for new voter registrants. On Twitter today, he praised Reeves’ decision to sign the bill.

“Ensuring only US citizens are voting in our elections has been a priority of mine since well before my time as Secretary of State,” Watson wrote. “This is more than a talking point for me. I’m glad to see the Governor finally join us in our efforts!”

‘This Is A Win For Mississippi’

In his video message, Gov. Reeves did not explain that the law’s requirement for cross-referencing a second database could prevent the improper removal of naturalized citizens from the voting rolls. The Republican governor instead spoke about the law, which he said will “ensure Mississippians can have faith in our democratic process,” in partisan terms.

“Now, there will be those on the left who will claim we are making it harder for American citizens to vote. Those claims are false. No one will be denied an opportunity to cast a ballot,” he said. “… If you are a citizen of our great country, you will be able to vote in Mississippi. Ironically, it was President Bill Clinton who signed into law legislation that made it illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. That’s a part of history I’m sure liberals have forgotten.”

Under the new law, attorney Rob McDuff said, “fewer people will be wrongly flagged as non-citizens, and the accuracy of the voter registration process will be improved.” Photo courtesy Mississippi Center for Justice

After negotiations between the legislative chambers, the final version of H.B. 1510 passed the Mississippi House and Senate on March 30. In both chambers, all Republican votes were in favor of the bill. House Democrats overwhelmingly voted for it, too, with 39 for it and five against; Senate Democrats largely opposed it with two in favor and 13 against.

In his April 5 report, Taylor Vance wrote that Sen. David Blount of Jackson, the Democratic vice chairman of the elections committee, acknowledged that H.B. 1510 would resolve the MCJ lawsuit, but voted against it anyway. The senator expressed concerns that passing the bill would increase a false perception that undocumented immigrants are currently voting in Mississippi elections.

In his video message on Thursday morning, Reeves pointed out that New York City is extending voting rights to around 800,000 noncitizens for local elections there.

“Well, we’re not going to allow liberals, whether they’re in New York or Washington, D.C., to tell us how to run our elections,” the Mississippi governor said moments after signing the law that will allow a federal database to determine Mississippi voter eligibility.

“This law is a win for Mississippi and for all who value free and fair elections. I am incredibly proud to have signed it into law.”

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