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Noncitizen voting, already illegal in federal elections, becomes a centerpiece of 2024 GOP messaging

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NEW YORK (AP) — One political party is holding urgent news conferences and congressional hearings over the topic. The other says it’s a dangerous distraction meant to seed doubts before this year’s presidential election.

In recent months, the specter of immigrants voting illegally in the U.S. has erupted into a leading election-year talking point for Republicans. They argue that legislation is necessary to protect the sanctity of the vote as the country faces unprecedented levels of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Voting by people who are not U.S. citizens already is illegal in federal elections and there is no indication it’s happening anywhere in significant numbers. Yet Republican lawmakers at the federal and state levels are throwing their energy behind the issue, introducing legislation and fall ballot measures. The activity ensures the issue will remain at the forefront of voters’ minds in the months ahead.

Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill called the SAVE (Safeguard American Voter Eligibility) Act that would require proof of citizenship to register to vote. Meanwhile, Republican legislatures in at least six states have placed noncitizen voting measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, while at least two more are debating whether to do so.

“American elections are for American citizens, and we intend to keep it that way,” House Administration Committee Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin said during a hearing he hosted on the topic this past week.

Democrats on the committee lambasted their Republican colleagues for focusing on what they called a “nonissue,” arguing it was part of a strategy with former President Donald Trump to lay the groundwork for election challenges this fall.

“It appears the lesson Republicans learned from the fiasco that the former president caused in 2020 was not ‘Don’t steal an election’ — it was just ‘Start earlier,’” said New York Rep. Joe Morelle, the committee’s top Democrat. “The coup starts here. This is where it begins.”

The concern that immigrants who are not eligible to vote are illegally casting ballots has prevailed on the right for years. But it gained renewed attention earlier this year when Trump began suggesting without evidence that Democrats were encouraging illegal migration to the U.S. so they could register the newcomers to vote.

Republicans who have been vocal about voting by those who are not citizens have demurred when asked for evidence that it’s a problem. Last week, during a news conference on his federal legislation to require proof of citizenship during voter registration, House Speaker Mike Johnson couldn’t provide examples of the crime happening.

“The answer is that it’s unanswerable,” the Louisiana Republican said in response to a question about whether such people were illegally voting. “We all know, intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections, but it’s not been something that is easily provable.”

Election administration experts say it’s not only provable, but it’s been demonstrated that the number of noncitizens voting in federal elections is infinitesimal.

To be clear, there have been cases over the years of noncitizens illegally registering and even casting ballots. But states have mechanisms to catch that. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose recently found 137 suspected noncitizens on the state’s rolls — out of roughly 8 million voters — and is taking action to confirm and remove them, he announced this past week.

In 2022, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, conducted an audit of his state’s voter rolls specifically looking for noncitizens. His office found that 1,634 had attempted to register to vote over a period of 25 years, but election officials had caught all the applications and none had been able to register.

In North Carolina in 2016, an audit of elections found that 41 legal immigrants who had not yet become citizens cast ballots, out of 4.8 million total ballots cast. The votes didn’t make a difference in any of the state’s elections.

Voters must confirm under penalty of perjury that they are citizens when they register to vote. If they lie, they can face fines, imprisonment or deportation, said David Becker, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research.

On top of that, anyone registering provides their Social Security number, driver’s license or state ID, Becker said. That means they already have shown the government proof of citizenship to receive those documents, or if they are a noncitizen with a state ID or Social Security number, they have been clearly classified that way in the state’s records.

“What they’re asking for is additional proof,” Becker said of Republicans pushing Johnson’s bill. “Why should people have to go to multiple government agencies and have them ask, ’Show us your papers,’ when they’ve already shown them?”

Democrats fear adding more ID requirements could disenfranchise eligible voters who don’t have their birth certificates or Social Security cards on hand. Republicans counter that the extra step could provide another layer of security and boost voter confidence in an imperfect system in which noncitizen voters have slipped through in the past.

The national focus on noncitizen voting also has brought attention to a related, but different phenomenon: how a small number of local jurisdictions, among them San Francisco and the District of Columbia, have begun allowing immigrants who aren’t citizens to vote in some local contests, such as for school board and city council.

The number of noncitizen voters casting ballots in the towns and cities where they are allowed to do so has been minimal so far. In Winooski, Vermont, where 1,345 people cast ballots in a recent local election, just 11 were not citizens, the clerk told The Associated Press. Still, the gradually growing phenomenon has prompted some state lawmakers to introduce ballot measures that seek to stop cities from trying this in the future.

In South Carolina, voters in November will decide on a constitutional amendment that supporters say will shut the door on any noncitizens voting. The state’s constitution currently says every citizen aged 18 and over who qualifies to vote can. The amendment changes the phrasing to say “only citizens.”

Republican state Sen. Chip Campsen called it a safeguard to prevent future problems. California has similar wording to South Carolina’s current provision, and Campsen cited a California Supreme Court decision that ruled “every” didn’t prevent noncitizens from voting.

Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson asked Campsen during the debate last month, “Do we have that problem here in South Carolina?”

“You don’t have the problem until the problem arises,” Campsen replied.

On Friday, legislative Republicans in Missouri passed a ballot measure for November that would ban both noncitizen voting and ranked-choice voting.

“I know that scary hypotheticals have been thrown out there: ‘Well, what about St. Louis? What about Kansas City?’” said Democratic state Sen. Lauren Arthur of Kansas City. “It is not a real threat because this is already outlawed. It’s already illegal in Missouri.”

Asked by a Democrat on Thursday about instances of noncitizens voting in Missouri, Republican Rep. Alex Riley said he didn’t have “specific data or a scenario that it has happened,” but wanted to “address the concern that it could happen in the future.”

In Wisconsin, an important presidential swing state where the Republican-controlled Legislature also put a noncitizen voting measure on the ballot this fall, Democratic state Rep. Lee Snodgrass said during a hearing earlier this week that she couldn’t understand why someone who is not a legal citizen would vote.

“I’m trying to wrap my brain around what people think the motivation would be for a noncitizen to go through an enormous amount of hassle to actively commit a felony to vote in an election that’s going to end up putting them in prison or be deported,” she said.

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Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri, Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

By ALI SWENSON
Associated Press

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