A bill requiring voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship cleared an early barrier on Wednesday by achieving positive recommendation from the Senate Government Operations Committee.
SB69 has been in the works since its sponsor, Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, was elected in 2004.
Although voting by noncitizens has not been a major issue in the past, the senator hopes to provide a "prophylactic solution" to potential voter fraud, he said.
"In some states it's happening in a very concerted, orchestrated way," explained Madsen, who has been an official election observer around the country and in South America. "I figured it was better to take preventative steps and to ward this off then to wait until the cancer metastasizes."
Opponents of the bill included the two Democratic senators on the committee plus the American Civil Liberties Union, the Disability Law Center and the Clerk's Legislative Policy Committee.
"This will disenfranchise citizens who do have a right to vote," said ACLU of Utah Executive Director Karen McCreary. "We would really urge you not to pass this at this time."
Disability Law Center policy analyst Andrew Riggle told the committee that up to 10 percent of people with disabilities don't have access to citizenship documentation, although they are legal citizens. The cost for getting papers, and thus the cost for voting, could be up to $200, he said.
Utah County Chief Auditor Scott Hogensen raised concerns that birth certificates can look very different, so their authenticity can be difficult to determine. Many voters could be forced to cast provisional ballots and therefore become disenfranchised, he said.
Sen. Scott McCoy also spoke against the bill, saying the bill is like giving chemotherapy to an anemic patient who doesn't have cancer.
"Legal U.S. citizens may be turned away in the name of solving a nonexistent problem," he said. "When those are the interests that are on the scales and that is the context in which the bill is offered, I cannot support it. … I err on the side of making it possible and easy for U.S. citizens to vote in elections."
A few members of the public responded, calling the right to vote a sacred privilege that should only be available to citizens.
"If this doesn't pass, it's one more stake in the heart of our state," said Norm Davis.
Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, said the requirements in the bill did not seem egregious.
"With respect to the argument that voter turnout in Utah is already very low," he said, "we got our voting done in February when we voted for Mitt Romney. … I think that is a little bit different problem than disinterest in civics."
After the meeting, Madsen said voters are likely to be more interested in the voting process if they are confident in the voting process.
He also said that his bill eliminates administrative issues and that those who would call this bill political are conceding that Democrats are using voter fraud.