Politics & Policy

Illegal Voting

The non-citizen electorate.

Amid all the talk of new voters becoming involved in the election, hopefully one group of voters will not vote in November — non-citizens, many of whom are illegally registered to vote all over the country, particularly in the southwest. Although there is no reliable method to determine the exact number registered aliens, there is evidence that this is a significant and growing problem.

The Government Accountability Office estimated that up to 3 percent of individuals called for jury duty from voter registration rolls in just one U.S. district court were not U.S. citizens. While that may not seem like a large number, it’s more than enough to tip close elections — say, Florida in 2000.. Florida has over a million illegal aliens, and the Justice Department has prosecuted non-citizens, including a state-legislature candidate, for voting there. In California, a congressional seat came within 200 votes of being stolen in 1996 by non-citizens’ voting; a city councilmember was permanently disqualified from public office for soliciting non-citizens to vote in Compton in 2001.

After a grand-jury investigation of the 1982 Illinois governor’s race resulted in the conviction of aliens for illegally registering and voting, the U.S. Attorney estimated that there were 80,000 non-citizens registered to vote in Chicago. In 1985, the district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Services testified in the Illinois legislature that 25,000 illegal and 40,000 legal aliens remained registered in Chicago. The grand jury found that aliens registered so they could “obtain documents identifying them as U.S. citizens” and had used their voter registration cards “to obtain a myriad of benefits, from social security to jobs with the Defense Department.” More recently, Bexar County, Texas, found hundreds of aliens registered to vote, some of whom had voted in a dozen local, state, and federal elections, and Harris County found a Norwegian citizen who had voted in a state legislative race decided by only 33 votes. Similar accounts from other states such as Utah and Arizona demonstrate that this is a widespread phenomena.

The weaknesses of the current registration system are to blame. First, in order to make registration easier, federal laws do not require proof of citizenship when registering, and states routinely offer registration to anyone getting a driver’s license, regardless of citizenship. Moreover, federal agencies in charge of immigration and customs enforcement refuse to comply with a federal law that requires them to cooperate with election officials in checking the citizenship status of registered voters. Overall, this amounts to an “honor” system — expecting immigrants, including those who broke the law to come here, to obey the law.

And even if an illegal alien would normally follow the rules, federal law provides an incentive for him to register to vote: Voter-registration cards, obtainable after a limited or no identification check, can be used to verify legal work status. They can also help when it comes to drivers’ licenses.

There are a number of solutions to this problem. The most important is that we must stop relying on an honor system, and require voters to provide proof of citizenship; election officials should have access to the government databases used by employers to verify the citizenship status of prospective employees. The federal government already uses these tools on everyone trying to get a job, negating the argument that proof of citizenship is discriminatory. Arizona, the only state that requires proof of citizenship to register to vote, has already turned away thousands of non-citizens who attempted to register — including almost 3,000 who tried to register when they applied for drivers’ licenses. State and federal courts should notify election officials when potential jurors are excused because they are not U.S. citizens.

Americans may disagree on many areas of immigration policy, but they should not disagree on the basic principle that only citizens should vote. Government officials have an obligation to enforce those laws.

— Hans A. von Spakovsky served as a member of the Federal Election Commission and as counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. His new study on “The Threat of Non-Citizen Voting” is available at www.heritage.org.

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