Although non-citizens can vote in some local elections, the GOP is doing everything they can to make it illegal. • Rhode Island Current

Although non-citizens can vote in some local elections, the GOP is doing everything they can to make it illegal.  • Rhode Island Current

Preventing people who are not U.S. citizens from casting ballots has once again become a central issue in the ongoing Republican push to protect “election integrity,” even though noncitizens are rarely involved in voter fraud.

Ahead of November’s presidential election, congressional and Republican lawmakers are aiming to keep noncitizens away from the ballot box. They use state constitutional amendments and new laws requiring verification of citizenship in order to vote. Noncitizens can vote in a handful of local elections in several states, but are already barred from voting in state or federal elections.

Some Republicans argue that preventing noncitizens from casting ballots — long a bogeyman in conservative politics — reduces the risk of fraud and increases confidence in American democracy. But even some on the right believe these efforts go too far, fueling anti-immigration sentiment and unfounded fears of widespread fraud, all to increase turnout among the Republican base.

While Republican leaders of Congress want to require documentation proving U.S. citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections, voters in at least four states will decide in November on ballot measures that would amend their state constitutions to clarify that only U.S. citizens can voting in state and local elections. elections.

Over the past six years, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota and Ohio have all amended their state constitutions.

In Kentucky — which along with Idaho, Iowa and Wisconsin is now considering a constitutional amendment — non-resident votes will not be tolerated, said Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, who voted in February to place the amendment on the November ballot. Five Democrats between the two chambers supported the Republican-authored legislation, while 16 others disagreed.

“There’s a lot of concern here about the Biden administration’s open border policy,” Thayer, the majority leader, told Stateline. “People see it every day on the news, with groups of illegal immigrants flooding across the border. And they come with concerns about election integrity.”

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson raised similar concerns last month when he announced new legislation — despite an existing 1996 ban — that would make it illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. During a trip to Florida to meet with former President Donald Trump, the Louisiana Republican said it is common sense to require proof of citizenship.

“It could, if there are enough votes, affect the presidential election,” he said, standing before Trump at the presumptive presidential candidate’s Mar-a-Lago resort. “We cannot wait for widespread fraud to occur, especially when the threat of fraud increases with every illegal immigrant who crosses the border.”

That rhetoric is rooted in fears about how the U.S. is changing demographically and becoming more diverse as its nonwhite population increases, according to longtime Republican strategist Mike Madrid. While this political strategy has helped garner support among Republican voters in the past, he questions whether it will be politically effective in the long run.

“There’s no problem being solved here,” said Madrid, whose forthcoming book, “The Latino Century,” outlines the group’s growing voter participation. “This is all political. It’s all about stoking fear and angering the base.”

In some elections across the country, non-citizens vote, but not in the way many might think.

Where non-citizens vote

In 16 cities and towns in California, Maryland and Vermont (along with the District of Columbia), non-citizens are allowed to vote in some local elections, such as for school board or city council. Voters in Santa Ana, California, will decide in November whether non-residents can vote in citywide elections.

In 2022, the New York State Supreme Court struck down New York City’s 2021 ordinance that allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections, saying it violated the state constitution. Advocates have argued that people, regardless of citizenship, should be able to vote on local issues affecting their children and communities.

During the first 150 years of the US, 40 states at various times allowed non-citizens to vote in elections. This ended in the 1920s when nativism increased and states began making voting a privilege for American citizens only.

The number of non-citizen voters is relatively small, and those voters are never allowed to participate in state or national elections. Local election officials maintain separate voter rolls to keep non-residents out of statewide databases.

In Vermont’s local elections in March, 62 noncitizens voted in Burlington, 13 in Montpelier and 11 in Winooski, all accounting for a fraction of the total vote.

In Takoma Park, Maryland, of the 347 noncitizens registered to vote in 2017, only 72 cast ballots, according to the city’s latest data. And in San Francisco, 36 noncitizens registered to vote in 2020, and 31 voted.

This is all political. It’s all about stoking fear and angering the base.

– Mike Madrid, Republican strategist and author

Turnout among non-residents is low for two reasons, says Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who is one of the leading scholars in the field. Many noncitizens in these jurisdictions don’t realize they have the right to vote, and many fear deportation or legal trouble, he said.

Registration forms in jurisdictions that allow non-residents to vote in local elections do acknowledge the risks. In San Francisco, local election officials are warning that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other agencies could access the city’s registration lists and advise residents to consult with an immigration attorney before registering to vote.

“Immigrants were very excited about this new voting right, they wanted to vote, but many of them ended up not registering and voting because they were worried,” Hayduk said.

While some noncitizens participate in a handful of local elections, they do not participate illegally in state and national elections in any substantial way.

While there is room for legitimate debate over whether noncitizens should be allowed to vote at the local level, there is no widespread voter fraud among noncitizens nationwide, said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

In 2020, federal investigators charged 19 noncitizens for voting in North Carolina elections. A national database from The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, shows that there have been fewer than 100 cases of voter fraud involving noncitizens since 2002, according to a recent count by The Washington Post.

Trump continues to falsely claim that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election and that he had a larger share of the vote in 2016. He has claimed without evidence that voter fraud was to blame, including some of noncitizens’ fault.

With illegal immigration one of the top issues for voters heading into November, Trump and his movement feel they have momentum among the public to tie immigration issues to their continued election claims, Olson said.

It’s a way to keep Democrats in the background by falsely accusing them of allowing immigrants to enter the country illegally so they can vote, he added.

“The imagination that there is some kind of conspiracy by a very large political party is remarkably devoid of evidence,” he said.

Fight against ‘left’

While voter fraud among non-residents is not widespread, states still need to add protections to their voting systems to prevent that possibility, said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.

Raffensperger has been a strong supporter of a Peach State law requiring documentation to verify voters’ citizenship status. In 2022, he announced that an internal audit of Georgia’s voter rolls from the past 25 years found that 1,634 noncitizens had attempted to register to vote, but none had cast ballots.

“I will continue to fight the left on this issue so that only American citizens decide America’s elections,” Raffensperger wrote in a statement to Stateline.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia are actively considering legislation that would add ballot initiatives for November to prevent non-citizen voting. These bills are at different points in the legislative process, with many already passed by a single chamber.

At a committee hearing last week, Republican Sen. Ben Brown of Missouri said the state’s constitutional language is vague enough to allow cities to allow non-residents to vote. While introducing his bill, he cited California’s parallel constitutional wording and the way cities like Oakland and San Francisco allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

Most state constitutions have similar language when it comes to voter eligibility, saying that “any” U.S. citizen 18 or older may vote. The proposed amendments would generally change one word, emphasizing that “only” U.S. citizens can vote, eliminating an ambiguity in the text that has left room for cities in several states to allow noncitizen participation in elections.

It’s a “pretty simple” solution, said Jack Tomczak, vice president of Outreach for Americans for Citizen Voting, a group that works with state legislatures to change their constitutions so that only citizens can vote in state and local elections.

“It dilutes the voice of the citizens of this country,” Tomczak said. “And it also dilutes the nature of citizenship.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Scott S. Greenberger: (email protected). Follow Stateline on Facebook and Tweet.