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Jul 1 / Erin Ferns Lee

Noncitizen Voting is Nonexistent, Say Michigan Election Officials

As Michigan considers following the dangerous example of Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, one of the candidates for the state’s chief election official is fanning the flames of hysteria in a way that threatens voting rights.

The Republican nominee for secretary of state, Oakland County clerk Ruth Johnson, has made noncitizen voting a major issue in her campaign. Numerous election officials and advocates, however, say it is “much ado about nothing,” according to a recent Michigan Messenger report.

Johnson—who claims 178,000 noncitizens are in Michigan “on visas and work permits” and carry the same driver’s licenses that citizens do—suggested at a recent campaign stop that the state introduce new driver’s licenses that would double as voter IDs for citizens only. Currently, all voters in the state are required to present photographic proof of identity or sign an affidavit before voting.

Johnson did not provide any evidence of, or statistics on, instances of noncitizen voting, nor did she provide any estimates of the cost of redesigning the state driver’s license.

Meanwhile, other election officials—including Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land’s office and Macomb County deputy clerk Todd Schmitz—say there is no issue with noncitizen voting.

“Voter registration lists are public information,” Schmitz told the Messenger. “Providing false citizenship information on a voter registration application under current law is subject to perjury law with penalties of a fine, imprisonment or both.”

Even Republican officials reportedly say Michigan “has very little problem with illegal immigration” in general.

“Non-citizens do not want to commit a crime,” said Jan BenDor of the Michigan Election Reform Alliance. “They want to live honestly so they can qualify for citizenship, or return home freely after their tour of study.”

Further, the Michigan Messenger points out that driver’s license applicants are required to prove citizenship before obtaining an ID in the first place.

So, why the “noncitizen voting” hysteria? Partisan politics, says the Messenger.

Johnson’s claims of noncitizen voting came shortly after the state introduced copycat legislation to Arizona’s SB 1070—a bill allowing police to demand proof-of-citizenship from any person suspected of being on U.S. soil illegally. State legislators have also recently introduced bills that would require voter applicants to prove citizenship before being enfranchised, another effort based on Arizona’s model.

According to the Messenger, “non-citizen voting seems to be part of a larger pattern of Republican candidates in the state taking advantage of the current anti-immigrant fervor being stoked on a daily basis in order to win support within the party.”

These partisan politics and policy ideas introduced by officials like Johnson and the Michigan state legislature, advocates say, can have a disenfranchising impact on otherwise eligible citizens. Not only do they stir hysteria around a mythological issue, but they can falsely influence voters and legislators to pass legislation that bars citizens who lack documented proof of citizenship from the voter rolls and the polls. As many as 13 million Americans do not have documented proof of citizenship; many of these are low income citizens, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice.

In May, we reported on the same phenomenon in Tennessee, where a proof-of-citizenship bill caused a ruckus when the Senate amended a House bill to follow Arizona’s voter registration requirement; the bill’s sponsor used anti-immigrant rhetoric to garner support. The bill failed after the House refused to concur with all the Senate amendments. (Project Vote recently released the Election Legislation 2010: Threats & Opportunities Assessment, a memo that outlines key election issues in the states, including proof-of-citizenship.)

Instead of catering to anti-immigrant hysteria to combat the mythical “problem” of voting by noncitizens, states would be better off investing in efforts to improve voter registration by naturalized citizens. According to a new report by Tova Wang of research and advocacy group, Demos, naturalized Americans lagged behind native born citizens in voter registration rates by 11 percentage points in 2008.

“It is not that new Americans don’t want to participate—once they are registered, immigrants vote overwhelmingly, reinforcing the need to facilitate voter registration,” wrote Wang. “In fact, of those registered to vote, in the recent past new citizens have had higher rates of voter turnout than natives.”

Wang’s report advocates for the inclusion of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an agency for voter registration under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), much like the Motor Vehicles Divisions that millions of Americans use to register to vote.

“As a society, we should strive to ensure that new citizens become engaged, incorporated and invested in democracy by encouraging their participation in elections,” she wrote. “This is especially appropriate given the level of commitment and devotion to this country these citizens demonstrate in going through the process of leaving their homes and taking all the steps one needs to take in order to become a citizen of the United States.”

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