Several naturalized U.S. citizens in Tennessee have allegedly being told by the state’s online voter registration service that they are not citizens at all and thus have been barred from voting.
“What I’ve noticed while speaking with people who are having this issue is, there is now a fear that ‘If I make too much noise and I say something about this, what if my citizenship is actually revoked and I do get deported even though I’ve been here for decades?'” said Funmilayo Ekundayo, a Nashville resident who was naturalized in 2005 and raised the issue in a series of online posts.
According to Ekundayo, around 10 people, all of them naturalized U.S. citizens, have told her that they experienced the same issue with Tennessee’s online voter registration. She first expressed her concern in a Facebook post on 29 June 2018 that was shared nearly 19,000 times:
In her post, Ekundayo said she was trying to update her voter registration information on 29 June 2018 when she received a message saying, “According to records at the [Tennessee] Department of Safety and Homeland Security, you are not a citizen of the United States.” Ekundayo included a screenshot of the message which she said was taken from the state’s web site:
However, Ekundayo told us, she had already provided information about her citizenship status to the state back in December 2017.
“When this happened in person at the DMV I asked the representative why he would require my citizenship information and why did [the DMV] not already have it on record,” she recalled. “I had to go back to my car and retrieve my passport, and then he made a copy of it that exact day before he was willing to renew my drivers license.”
Ekundayo said that she subsequently spoke to both the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security (DOS) and state election commissioner Mark Goins. She told us she felt as if Goins had “brushed off” her story.
“He believes this is what the website was designed to do, which is to weed out illegal immigrants and make them aware they do not have a right to vote,” she said.
We contacted the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office seeking comment, and spokesperson Adam Ghassemi responded via email to say:
No information has been lost and there is no glitch with Tennessee’s online voter registration system.
We are not aware of any eligible voter who has been prevented from registering to vote.
Our system checks information against records on file with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security which issues Tennessee driver’s licenses. An alert is displayed when we are unable to verify a person is a U.S. citizen. People who have naturalized to become U.S. citizens may experience this alert if they have not updated paperwork with the department after naturalizing.
Our system allows anyone who encounters the alert to simply enter their naturalization number and continue which is what normally occurs. A toll-free number is also clearly posted if someone believes they are receiving the alert in error.
Ekundayo responded by saying:
Most will never have their citizenship questioned due to their demographic status, so when Mark Goins, the state appointed coordinator for the Tennessee Elections said “I don’t understand why anyone would be afraid of being questioned about who they are, if they are citizens,” I believe him.
He truly may not be able to grasp that in this politically tense climate, where we’ve seen increasingly more anti-immigration bills being passed, naturalized citizens, having gone through all the processes legally, are weary and downright afraid, because it is obvious that naturalized citizens could also be in the crosshairs, and victims of the anti-immigrant crusade.
She also reaffirmed in a 3 July video that she was able to update her voter registration, but that the process required her to make physical copies of documentation instead of simply entering her naturalization number.
“One of our basic rights as Americans and one of the things that is the ability to have a voice, the very simple right to have a voice,” she told us. “That’s essentially what I was trying to achieve and ensure — that I would have a voice in my local government.”
She also said that she had spoken to both a staff member for Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper and a local advocacy group, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, about her concerns. A spokesperson for Cooper’s office confirmed that they had been in contact with Ekundayo.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee confirmed that they are looking into the issue.
“Voting is the cornerstone of democracy and we remain committed to ensuring that all people, including naturalized citizens, do not face obstacles or burdens when attempting to exercise their right to vote,” the group said in a statement to us.
A DOS spokesperson told us, “It appears that while she was authorized a permanent status sometime after 2000, we do not know when she was authorized to be a naturalized citizen. Also, in 2015, the department moved from the old 3270 system to AList. We have not been able to find any documents from the conversion.”
They added that people experiencing difficulties with the voter registration web site “the applicant should be advised to contact the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security — Driver Services Division to provide a copy of the most updated documentation in order for a record to be further evaluated.”
Added statement from Funmilayo Ekundayo, and confirmation of her contact with Rep. Jim Cooper's office.
Added statement from a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.