No, automatic voter registration will not put millions of illegal immigrants on voter rolls

The New York Times published a profile today on iVote, Obama campaign veteran Jeremy Bird’s initiative to pass automatic voter registration laws in as many states as possible to counteract GOP voter suppression efforts. Automatic voter registration has already passed in Oregon and California, and is pending in 17 other states, according to iVote adviser Craig Smith.

As I’ve written a few times, automatic voter registration — while not as good as universal registration — would amount to the biggest expansion of the franchise since the Voting Rights Act. It’s also the simplest, most efficient way to expand ballot access through public policy, as all it requires is for states to implement the 1993 National Voter Registration Act on an opt-out, as opposed to an opt-in basis. Rather than asking citizens who interact with the DMV and other state agencies if they would like to register to vote, states would instead ask citizens if they would rather the state didn’t update their voter rolls to include them at their most recent address. It doesn’t create any additional bureaucracy, it puts less of a burden on the citizen and it’s absolutely constitutional.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t arguments against automatic voter registration. Doing their due diligence, the Times turned to perhaps the leading voice against ballot access in the country, none other than Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to have him explain why automatic voter registration is, in fact, bad. As the Times reported:

Kris Kobach, via Wikimedia Commons

Kris Kobach, via Wikimedia Commons

Kris W. Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas and a Republican, who has been a leading advocate of stricter voting laws, said he opposed automatic registration because people who chose not to register were clearly not interested in voting.

“The assumption that by making what is already easy automatic that will somehow bring people to the polls is just erroneous,” Mr. Kobach said. “I just think it’s a bad idea. It’s not going to increase participation rates.”

Mr. Kobach has pushed for some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, including one that requires proof of citizenship. He said automatic registration would make that kind of check impossible.

“You’re going to end up with aliens on the voter rolls,” Mr. Kobach said. “It’s inevitable that an automatic registration system would result in many of them getting on.”

There are two claims here. The first is that automatic voter registration is unnecessary because everyone who wants to register to vote already can. Regardless as to how easy or difficult it is to register, as long as the opportunity exists, everyone who wants to take advantage of it will. The second is that if states start automatically adding people to the voter rolls, the undocumented immigrants who interact with these state agencies are going to get mixed in with the citizens who do.

Neither of these claims hold up under even the slightest bit of scrutiny. For starters, we know from empirical evidence that the rules governing when and how citizens can register to vote have drastic effects on how many actually do. While automatic voter registration is too new and in too few states to say for certain just how much of an effect it will have on voter turnout, a similar policy, Election Day registration, should give us an idea. Like automatic voter registration, Election Day registration removes barriers to entry in the voting market; it just does so slightly differently, by expanding the days in which citizens are allowed to register to include Election Day. And the evidence is clear: Election Day registration boosts turnout. By a lot.

Without voter registration deadlines, up to four million additional people would have been on the voter rolls for the 2012 election. In 2014, states with Election Day voter registration averaged twelve percent higher voter turnout than states without it. This being the case, it’s patently absurd to say that automatic voter registration is “not going to increase participation rates.” Similar policy changes already have.

But the claim I’d imagine Kobach will cling to more strongly — especially given his paranoid obsession with making it harder for certain types of people to register to vote in his state while ignoring the electoral irregularities that are actually taking place — is the second one: that automatic voter registration will lead to undocumented immigrants being put on the voter rolls.

This, too, is an assertion without evidence. Federal voter registration requirements still stipulate that only citizens can be registered to vote, meaning that state agencies will have to ask the citizenship question in order to be able to pass eligible voters along to the state registrar.

What’s more, DMVs and other state agencies are already perfectly capable of keeping track of which of their customers are citizens and which aren’t. Ten states already issue drivers licenses and other similar documents to non-citizens — covering 37 percent of America’s non-citizen population — but under the REAL ID Act of 2005, those licenses must be distinct from the ones issued to citizens. This means that the states in question are already asking, identifying and keeping separate non-citizens who interact with the DMV; there’s no reason to think other state agencies wouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

Additionally, as the Times reported, state agencies like motor vehicle departments already match the voter registration forms they receive with citizenship databases. Which speaks (again) to just how hard it is to raise an objection to a bureaucratic tweak on a law that has existed — with great success and little, unsuccessful objection — since 1993.

In other words, to the extent that undocumented immigrants will wind up on the voter rolls under a system of automatic registration, they will do so the same way they currently do: with falsified documents, or by accident, but not through state agencies that are implementing updated “motor voter” requirements under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Nothing about automatic voter registration, in and of itself, changes that. Which gets us to Kobach’s real beef: that the federal government doesn’t require birth certificates or naturalization documents for voter registration in the first place. It simply requires you to check a box — under penalty of perjury — saying you’re a citizen.

Kobach has made clear, time and time again, that he doesn’t think this requirement is good enough. Voting rights advocates are currently suing him over his attempt to remove 37,000 people from Kansas’s voter rolls entirely because they didn’t provide proof of citizenship when they registered to vote. While Kansas is one of just two states that requires proof of citizenship for voter registration (Arizona being the other one) that requirement can only apply to state-level elections. The federal government, retaining the authority to regulate federal elections, has no such requirement, meaning that Kobach is supposed to keep voters who meet federal but not state eligibility standards on a separate list. Citing the wholly predictable bureaucratic nightmare that this created, Kobach opted to simply remove these people from the rolls entirely, effectively ignoring the federal standard.

So Kobach’s claim that automatic voter registration will lead to more undocumented immigrants on the voter rolls isn’t really a claim about this particular policy tweak at all; it’s an indictment of our current system of voter registration. And while there may be a debate to be had about whether requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration is a good idea, that’s part of an entirely different — and much larger — debate about the very definition of American democracy.

UPDATE: Chris Christie just vetoed automatic voter registration in New Jersey. Boo this man.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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13 Responses to “No, automatic voter registration will not put millions of illegal immigrants on voter rolls”

  1. Cluedweasel says:

    It’s still factually wrong. I am a non-citizen and I had a license from California back in 2001 and I currently hold a license in Oregon. The assertion that “Ten states already issue drivers licenses and other similar documents to non-citizens” is incorrect in as far as all 50 do. As usual, the erroneous assumption is being made that anyone in the US who is not a US citizen must be an undocumented alien.

  2. Jon Green says:

    The link under “Ten states” has the source for that.

  3. Cluedweasel says:

    “What’s more, DMVs and other state agencies are already perfectly capable of keeping track of which of their customers are citizens and which aren’t. Ten states already issue drivers licenses and other similar documents to non-citizens —”

    I have an issue with this assertion. All 50 states, as far as I’m aware, issue drivers licenses to non-US citizens.

  4. Skeet Barlow says:

    Do not delude yourself. Automatic Voter registration makes it easier for the illegal immigrant with a false identity (nearly all of them), to get on the voter rolls. It is much easier for an illegal immigrant with a fake ID to show up at a voter booth and check a box, than it is for them to apply for proof of citizenship with a fake ID that likely doesn’t even have their picture on it. That is the only reason democrats push this kind of legislation.

    What else should we trust from someone who helped Obama get elected? Im sure he knows all the tricks.

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  6. Hue-Man says:

    Never having contemplated grand theft auto, I would probably turn off the engine, lock the door, and look for the owner – mall, nearby house, hospital, etc. – and failing that, call the police. But then I live in a country whose “life liberty, etc.” equivalent is “peace, order, and good government”!

    We cheered because the voter participation rate increased from 61.1% in 2011 to 68.49% in 2015. People failing to vote is a bigger threat to democracy than any individual auto-thief/fraudulent voter. (My voter fraud fear concentrates more on systems – the 2000 election taught us what an unfair election process looks like. IMO, on-line voting is susceptible to systemic fraud.)

  7. BeccaM says:

    Republicans don’t want eligible Americans to vote, because when people show up to vote in significant numbers, GOPers lose.

    They love these elections, especially the ignored mid-terms, where voter turnout is 30% or less, because all they have to do is turn out their radical far right 16% and they win. And even that paltry number is only a little over half of the number of Americans who thought Dubya was a magnificent president.

    Kobach is merely one of the more blatant and extreme examples of the GOP’s systematic voter suppression and intimidation agenda.

  8. BeccaM says:

    Let’s say one comes across a car with the keys inside, the engine running and the doors unlocked. It’s still grand theft auto to climb into that car and drive away with it.

  9. Bill_Perdue says:

    People who live and work in the US should have the absolute right to medical care, good wages and housing, dual citizenship, documentation and voting rights.

  10. JaneE says:

    The US Constitution leaves voter qualification up to the states – If someone can vote for the most numerous branch of the state legislature, they can vote for congress. Citizenship is required for federal office, but not mandated for voting except by state law. I have seen special elections restricted to only property owners, in which non-citizen property owners were specifically allowed to vote.

    Why should the vote be restricted to citizens? States may require citizenship, but why? All residents (without diplomatic immunity) need to abide by the law. Why shouldn’t all those people be allowed to have a say in them?

  11. Hue-Man says:

    This story came out the day before the recent election:

    “A Vancouver-area man is raising questions after he received a voter
    information card in the mail, even though he’s not eligible to vote
    because he’s not a Canadian citizen.”

    BUT, the voter is the one who pays the price.

    “Elections Canada spokesperson Dorothy Sitek said it’s up to ineligible
    voters to abide by the rules and refrain from voting. Penalties for
    ineligible voting range from a $20,000 fine or up to a year in jail.”

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