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Denise Cross Photography

RICHMOND, Va. – To register to vote, Virginians would have to prove their citizenship by showing a copy of their birth certificate or their passport, under a bill approved by the House of Delegates on a party-line vote.

“I would’ve made it a requirement for any election,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Del. Mark Cole of Fredericksburg. “However, there’s a federal ruling that says you cannot require proof of citizenship, which really makes no sense to me.”

HB 1598 would require people to provide proof of U.S. citizenship when they register to vote in Virginia beginning Jan. 1, 2018. Applicants who do not provide such proof could still register, but they would be able to vote in federal elections only – not in state and local elections. Each voter’s registration record would indicate whether the individual could participate in all elections or just in federal elections.

The House passed the bill Wednesday, 64-33, as Republicans voted for it and Democrats voted against.

In 2014, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that states cannot require citizenship documentation for voter registration applicants using the “federal form.” That means states can mandate the requirement only for state and local elections.

A 1993 law allows states to use their own voter registration forms as long as they also accept the federal form.

Currently, the federal form simply requires voters to swear that they are citizens under penalty of perjury. In Virginia, perjury can be punished by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Cole said it is appropriate to require proof of citizenship because there have been cases of noncitizens registering to vote, either inadvertently or intentionally.

Indeed, President Trump has claimed, without offering proof, that millions of people voted illegally in November’s presidential election. He says that is why he lost the popular vote.

Trump has cited a study by Jesse Richman, an associate professor of political science at Old Dominion University. Richman and colleagues examined data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study in 2014 and reported that 6.4 percent of noncitizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent voted in 2010 in national elections.

Critics have questioned Richman’s study, saying it was based on flawed data – surveys in which respondents may have inadvertently checked a box indicating they were noncitizens.

When the bill was debated on the House floor, Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, offered his support. He said he has gone to offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles and witnessed noncitizens being given the opportunity to register to vote.

The federal Motor Voter Act, signed into law in 1993, requires that anyone who applies for a driver’s license must be offered the chance to register to vote.

“If we can only do it for states, I think we should do it,” Marshall said. Referring to Cole, he added, “What the gentleman is doing is necessary. I wish we could go further.”

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, opposed Cole’s measure. Democrats argue that many citizens may not be able to produce a birth certificate or other documentation that the bill would require – and so they wouldn’t be able to vote in state and local elections.

“When we pass this legislation, we will be saying to a portion of Virginians, ‘You can’t vote,’” Sullivan said. “We will be creating an entire class of second-class citizens.”

Sullivan cited a statistic that 5.7 percent of voting-age residents do not have a copy of their birth certificate or a passport. That would represent more than 320,000 of Virginia’s currently registered voters.

“A – it’s expensive to get a passport,” Sullivan said. “B – they may not do any traveling. And people don’t have copies of their birth certificates.”

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said there is no reason to make people prove their citizenship when they register to vote because they must swear that they are citizens under threat of perjury.

“I think that committing a felony to vote in an election is something that no noncitizen in their right mind would do,” Sickles said. “It’s not happened.”

Many news organizations and other groups have looked for incidents of voter fraud and found that they are rare. The Washington Post found 31 credible cases of impersonation fraud out of more than 1 billion votes during elections from 2000 to 2014.

By Jesse Adcock with Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.