Tennessee Proof of Citizenship Letters Spark Alarm, Confusion Among Naturalized Citizens

Tennessee election officials are under fire after sending a letter to 14,000 residents seeking proof of citizenship, raising concerns among naturalized citizens and local officials who worry that eligible voters will be unwittingly purged from voter rolls.

Civil rights advocates are now threatening to sue Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett over the letters. On Thursday, the ACLU of Tennessee, the national chapter and the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter on behalf of local advocacy groups to Hargett and Elections Coordinator Mark Goins, who signed the noncitizen notices, alleging the letters are unconstitutional and violate the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Any assurances from Goins that he won’t be purging voters is inconsistent with state law, the ACLU letter says, “which requires that voters who do not provide documentary proof of citizenship to the county election commission within 30 days must be purged.” If Goins fails to remedy the issue, the organization “will challenge the voter list maintenance program in court.”

Knox County Commissioner Julie Gautreau says her French-born husband and stepson received letters despite them becoming naturalized citizens in 2016 who have previously voted in federal elections. “As you can see in the letter my husband received, he bears the burden of proving his citizenship. There is a strong suggestion of wrongdoing, also implicit in the memo,” Gautreau wrote in an email to Goins, shared with Democracy Docket.

A number of Tennesseeans have reported the letters to the election protection hotline, according to Organize Tennessee. “I am deeply concerned about the recent actions taken by the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office,” Executive Director Nadira Freeman said in a statement provided to Democracy Docket. “This approach disproportionately impacts naturalized citizens and raises serious questions about voter intimidation and the violation of federal laws designed to protect voter rights.”

The letters sent this month by Goins say voting in local, state and federal elections is illegal under state law. Goins also asks noncitizens to use an enclosed form to request that their name be removed from the voter roll; U.S. citizens are asked to provide a copy of a birth certificate, U.S. passport or other listed form of documentation to confirm citizenship.

Goins has framed the letters as an opportunity for voters to ensure that their records are up to date. But with Republicans across the country pushing legislation against noncitizen voting, which is illegal in federal elections, some local officials and activists are decrying the letters as an attempt to intimidate lawful voters who weren’t born in the U.S. or for whom English isn’t their first language. 

Some local officials say the letters are confusing by design. “I don’t know if their intent is clarification,” said Nashville Councilor Sandra Sepulveda, the city’s only Latino councilwoman, when asked how election officials can help impacted Tennesseans better understand what’s being asked of them.

Sepulveda, who on X asked recipients to report the letter to the ACLU of Tennessee, told Democracy Docket she’s been receiving direct messages from people asking how they should proceed.

Community activist and Tennessee House candidate Luis Mata says he’s also heard from voters in the district he’s running to represent. “People are confused. They’re scared,” he told Democracy Docket. “And they have a lot of questions.”

Mata and Sepulveda’s concerns echo those of Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson. The U.S. Senate candidate called the letters an attempt to intimidate voters, and said one of her constituents received a notice even though he became a U.S. citizen in 2022. 

Johnson questioned whether Goins complied with state law which outlines the process for informing a person that their citizenship is in question. The law stipulates that the county election commissions in the county where the person resides is authorized to contact voters. But nothing in Tennessee code explicitly forbids the election coordinator from contacting voters directly. 

A Tennessee election lawyer from the firm Herzfeld, Suetholz, Gastel, Leniski, and Wall told Democracy Docket that Goins must immediately clarify his intent behind the letter. “Tennessee is one of the worst states with regard to voter participation,” the lawyer said, “and sowing seeds of confusion this close to an important federal election is a terrible signal to send to voters.”