Though noncitizens can vote in few local elections, GOP goes big to make it illegal

Though noncitizens can vote in few local elections, GOP goes big to make it illegal

Voters line up outside of a Takoma Park, Md., polling place. Takoma Park is one of 17 jurisdictions nationally that allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. (Jose Luis Magana | The Associated Press)

Preventing people who are not United States citizens from casting a ballot has reemerged as a focal point in the ongoing Republican drive to safeguard “election integrity,” even though noncitizens are rarely involved in voter fraud.

Ahead of November’s presidential election, congressional and state Republican lawmakers are aiming to keep noncitizens away from the polls. They’re using state constitutional amendments and new laws that require citizenship verification to vote. Noncitizens can vote in a handful of local elections in several states, but already are not allowed to vote in statewide or federal elections.

Some Republicans argue that preventing noncitizens from casting ballots — long a boogeyman in conservative politics — reduces the risk of fraud and increases confidence in American democracy. But even some on the right think these efforts are going too far, as they churn up anti-immigration sentiment and unsupported fears of widespread fraud, all to boost turnout among the GOP base.

While Republican congressional leaders want to require documentation proving US citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections, voters in at least four states will decide on ballot measures in November that would amend their state constitutions to clarify that only US citizens can vote in state and local 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 — noncitizens voting will not be tolerated, said Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer, who voted in February to put the amendment on November’s ballot. Five Democrats between the two chambers backed the Republican-authored legislation, while 16 others dissented.

“There is a lot of concern here about the Biden administration’s open border policies,” Thayer, the majority floor leader, told Stateline. “People see it on the news every day, with groups of illegals pouring through the border. And they’re combined with concerns on election integrity.”

US House Speaker Mike Johnson expressed 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 Trumpthe Louisiana Republican said it’s common sense to require proof of citizenship.

“It could, if there are enough votes, affect the presidential election,” he said, standing in front of Trump in the presumptive presidential nominee’s Mar-a-Lago resort. “We cannot wait for widespread fraud to occur, especially when the threat of fraud is growing with every single illegal immigrant that crosses that border.”

That rhetoric is rooted in a fear about how the US is changing demographically, becoming more diverse as the non-white population increases, said longtime Republican strategist Mike Madrid. Though this political strategy has worked to galvanize support among GOP voters in the past, he questions whether this will be effective politically in the long term.

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

Noncitizens are voting in some elections around the country, but not in a way that many might think.

Where noncitizens vote

In 16 cities and towns in California, Maryland and Vermont (along with the District of Columbia), noncitizens 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 to allow noncitizens to vote in citywide elections.

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

During the first 150 years of the US, 40 states at various times permitted noncitizens to vote in elections. That came to a halt in the 1920s when nativism ramped up and states began making voting a privilege for only US citizens.

The number of noncitizen voters has been relatively small, and those voters are never allowed to participate in statewide or national elections. Local election officials maintain separate voter lists to keep noncitizens out of statewide databases.

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

In Takoma Park, Maryland, of the 347 noncitizens who were registered to vote in 2017, just 72 cast a ballot, according to the latest data provided by the city. And in San Francisco, 36 noncitizens registered to vote in 2020 and 31 voted.

This is all politics. It’s all about stoking fears and angering the base.

– Mike Madrid, Republican strategist and author

Voter turnout among noncitizens is low for two reasons, said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, who is one of the leading scholars in this area. Many noncitizens in these jurisdictions do not realize they have the right to vote, and many are afraid of deportation or legal issues, he said.

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

“Immigrants were very excited about this new right to vote, they wanted to vote, but many of them did not ultimately register and vote because they were concerned,” Hayduk said.

While there are some noncitizens participating in a handful of local elections, they’re not participating illegally in any substantial way in state and national elections.

Though there’s room for legitimate debate about whether noncitizens should be allowed to vote at the local level, there is no widespread voter fraud among noncitizens nationally, 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 run by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, shows that there have been fewer than 100 cases of voter fraud tied to noncitizens since 2002, according to a recent count by The Washington Post.

Trump continues to falsely assert that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election and that he had more of the popular vote in 2016. He has claimed without evidence that voter fraud was to blame, including in part from noncitizens.

With illegal immigration near the top of major issues for voters ahead of November, Trump and his movement sense they have momentum with the public to tie immigration concerns with their continued election claims, Olson said.

It’s a way of keeping Democrats on the back foot, by falsely accusing them of allowing immigrants to come into the country illegally so they can vote, he added.

“The imaginings that there is some sort of plot by an entire major political party is just remarkably evidence-free,” he said.

Fighting ‘the left’

Although voter fraud among noncitizens is not happening widely, states should still add protections to their voting systems to prevent that possibility, said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican.

Raffensperger has been a major proponent of a Peach State law that requires documentation to verify the citizenship status of voters. In 2022, he announced that an internal audit of Georgia’s voter rolls over the past 25 years found that 1,634 noncitizens had attempted to register to vote, but not a single one cast a ballot.

“I will continue to fight the left on this issue so that only American citizens decide American 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 noncitizen voting. Those bills are at various points in the legislative process, with many having already passed one chamber.

During a committee hearing last week, Republican Missouri state Sen. Ben Brown said the state’s constitutional language is vague enough to allow cities to let noncitizens vote. While presenting his bill, he cited California’s parallel constitutional becoming and how cities such as Oakland and San Francisco allow noncitizens to vote in local elections.

Most state constitutions have similar language around voter eligibility, saying that “every” US citizen that is 18 or over can vote. The proposed amendments usually would change one word, emphasizing that “only” US 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” fix, said Jack Tomczak, vice president of outreach for Americans for Citizen Voting, a group that works with state lawmakers to amend their constitutions so that only citizens can vote in state and local elections.

“It does dilute the voice of 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. Contact Editor Scott S. Greenberger for questions: [email protected]. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.

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