Photo Credit: John Morton / Wikimedia
New York City election, 2008

This month marks the 30th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing the National Voter Registration Act into law. You probably know the law as “Motor Voter.” It is the federal requirement that requires state motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration and the ability to update your address.

Sounds convenient? Now, we have data showing one of the side effects of Motor Voter is to put non-citizens onto American voter rolls.


The Public Interest Legal Foundation, of which I am president, has been examining Motor Voter at 30; the good and the bad.

On one hand, the law has greatly increased the transparency in our elections. The law requires that all voter list maintenance records be available for public inspection. When elections are conducted with transparency, we trust the process more regardless of which candidate wins.

Additionally, Motor Voter requires states to have a reasonable program to remove registrants who have moved out of state or have passed away. There is no other obligation for election officials to have clean rolls.

On the downside, Motor Voter has led to foreign nationals who are not US citizens getting registered to vote, and documents prove it.

We know this because we have collected extensive records of non-citizens asking to be removed from the voter rolls. Sometimes those records reveal how the foreign citizen was registered to vote, and the Motor Voter process represents the vast majority of cases.

According to election records from Maricopa County, Arizona, 222 foreign nationals were removed from the county voter registration list since 2015. One of these individuals was registered for 27 years. That is 13 federal elections.

Some of the 222 foreigners on the voter rolls were also voting. Nine individuals are recorded casting 12 ballots across 4 federal elections.

Chicago, not surprisingly, has similar problems. Chicago election records show 394 foreigners were cancelled from the rolls after they asked to be. Of course, too many of them voted.

Chicago officials provided registration records where some foreign nationals even checked “NO” to the question of whether the person is a United States citizen, and were still registered.

The Pennsylvania State Department admitted that due to what election officials referred to as a “glitch” that they had been accidentally registering foreign nationals to vote for two decades. They have been fighting for over five years to conceal details, including the number of foreign nationals the Commonwealth registered to vote by mistake.

It is not always a plot, either. The process can be as simple as a foreign national checking the wrong box or signing the wrong form handed to them by a government employee – sometimes they cannot fully understand the language.

The reports from Maricopa County and Chicago are not an inventory of every non-citizen vote, but only those who informed election officials they were not American citizens. So, the catalog of confessed non-citizens is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg.

Foreign nationals contact election officials to be removed from the voter roll when they are in the process of naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen. The naturalization process requires foreign nationals to answer if they have been registered to vote. If they lie about this easily verifiable question, they scuttle their naturalization. Worse, they risk outright deportation. Unfortunately, self-confessions represent the primary documents demonstrating the problem.

Nobody has a single database of citizens or foreigners that can be used for election administration — not even the federal government. The Department of Homeland Security has a database of foreigners who have touched the immigration process, such as student visa holders, asylum seekers, green card applicants. But federal officials have failed to provide meaningful access to state election officials.

What can be done about non-citizens registering to vote?

Congress can solve the problem by allowing states to validate citizenship effectively. This could be as easy as providing a passport, birth certificate or other evidence of being an American at the time of voter registration.

Another easy fix is for Congress to add citizenship to the National Voter Registration Act’s reasonable voter list maintenance requirements for states. Motor Voter does not put the same obligation for states to keep voter rolls free from non-citizens as it does, for example, dead voters.

We have learned a great deal about Motor Voter over the last three decades. The law profoundly changed American elections, yet it is showing signs of wear. It’s time to modernize it.

J. Christian Adams is the President of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a former Justice Department attorney, and current commissioner on the United States Commission for Civil Rights.

{Reposted from Gatestone Institute}


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