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Tennessee election officials ask more than 14,000 voters to prove their citizenship

Tennessee election officials ask more than 14,000 voters to prove their citizenship

Tennessee election officials ask more than 14,000 voters to prove their citizenship

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s main elections office sent letters to more than 14,000 registered voters asking them to prove their citizenship, a move that alarmed voting rights advocates as possible intimidation.

The letters, dated June 13, warned that it is illegal in Tennessee for noncitizens to vote and provided instructions on how to update voter information. The list was developed after comparing voter lists with data from the state Department of Homeland Security, Doug Kufner, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said in a statement Tuesday.

Kufner described the state’s Homeland Security Department data as a “snapshot” of a person’s first interaction with that agency. Some may not have been U.S. citizens when they got a driver’s license or ID card, but have since naturalized and “probably didn’t update their records,” she said.

“Accurate voter lists are a vital component of ensuring election integrity, and Tennessee law makes clear that only eligible voters may participate in Tennessee elections,” Kufner said.

However, the letter does not reveal what would happen to those who do not update their registrations, including whether people who do not respond will be removed from the voter rolls. Kufner did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification on whether voters were at risk of being recalled.

Instead, the letter contains warnings that voting illegally is a serious crime and carries penalties of up to two years in prison.

Voting rights advocates began raising alarm after photos of the letter began circulating on social media. Democrats have long criticized the Secretary of State’s office for its stances on election issues in the Republican-majority state.

“The fact that legal citizens of the United States and residents of Tennessee are accused of being ineligible to vote is an affront to democracy,” state Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, said in a statement. “These fine Tennesseans are being burdened with re-proving their own voter eligibility and threatened with incarceration in a scare tactic reminiscent of Jim Crow laws.”

Powel and fellow Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons on Tuesday urged Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti to investigate the matter.

Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said she was informed that one of the recipients of the letter included a “respected scientist in Oak Ridge” who had become a citizen and registered to vote in 2022.

“Maybe the state should verify citizenship with the federal government before sending threatening/intimidating letters to new citizens,” Johnson posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Other leaders encouraged those who received a letter to contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee for possible legal resources.

The effort bears some resemblance to the implementation of a sweeping Texas election law passed in 2021, in which thousands of Texans, including some U.S. citizens, received letters saying they had been flagged as potential noncitizens who could be expelled from the voter lists.

Texas officials had just settled a lawsuit in 2019 after a previous search for ineligible voters flagged nearly 100,000 registered voters but wrongly captured naturalized citizens. A federal judge who stopped the search a month after it began noted that at that point only about 80 people had been identified as potentially ineligible to vote.