Rep. Mike Johnson

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) was applauded after being nominated for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on October 24, 2023.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The GOP Is Keen to Tackle the Non-Threat of Noncitizen Voting

The nonissue is being milked by Republicans in order to curry favor with Trump and gin up distrust in the electoral process so that Trump and his allies can again claim fraud if he doesn’t win in November.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has emerged as a big backer of a bill now pending in Congress to keep people who are not citizens from voting, even though there is no evidence that this occurs except in extremely rare and isolated cases. He has argued that if we wait for this to become a real problem, we’ll miss our chance to do something about it.

“We cannot wait for widespread fraud to occur,” Johnson said at an April 12 news conference at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. “Especially when the threat of fraud is growing with every single illegal immigrant that crosses that border” with Mexico.

A month later, on May 8, Johnson told reporters on the Capitol steps that the issue was being driven not by evidence but intuition:

“We all know, intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections. But it’s not been something that is easily provable. We don’t have that number. This legislation will allow us to do exactly that—it will prevent that from happening. And if someone tries to do it, it will now be unlawful within the states.”

Republican lawmakers are mobilizing in Congress and in statehouses across the country to pass laws to make voting by noncitizens even harder to do. Why? As with so much else within the Republican party, it’s because Donald Trump wants them to.

In fact, voting by noncitizens in state and federal elections already is illegal in all 50 states. And multiple attempts to quantify the scope of the problem have all affirmed that it is all but nonexistent. A study by the liberal Brennan Center for Justice of voting in immigrant-heavy jurisdictions in the 2016 general election found 30 cases of suspected—not confirmed—noncitizen votes out of 23.5 million cast.

Others note that when noncitizens try to vote, it is often due to a misunderstanding or mistake. They may believe that just because they are in the country legally, working and paying taxes, that they have a right to vote. Moreover, those convicted of illegally voting in a federal election face up to a year in federal prison and may face deportation and revocation of their legal status under immigration law. And all just to cast a single vote.

“This is a crime where not only are the consequences really high and the payoff really low,” says Sean Morales-Doyle, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice. Registering to vote and voting itself creates “a government record of your crime.” In sum, he says, voting by noncitizens is “very easy to catch, and you will get caught.”

In Georgia, a 2022 review ordered up by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger turned up 1,624 cases in which noncitizens attempted to register over a 25-year period. In every case, elections officials intervened and blocked the registration.

Still, Republican lawmakers are mobilizing in Congress and in statehouses across the country to pass laws to make voting by noncitizens even harder to do. Why? As with so much else within the Republican party, it’s because Donald Trump wants them to.

The bill now before Congress and being championed by Speaker Johnson, known as the “Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act” or “SAVE Act,” is the brainchild of Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

It would require states to scour their voter rolls, as Georgia did, in search of noncitizens. And it would mandate that voters present proof of citizenship before receiving a ballot. The fact that they already must in most cases prove their citizenship to obtain the documents they need to register to vote is not good enough.

Additionally, at least six states have placed measures to curb voting by noncitizens on the November 5 ballot. In my home state of Wisconsin, voters will have a chance to approve a state constitutional amendment that has already passed two consecutive sessions of the legislature.

While it will be too late to change the rules for the next election, having it on the ballot will help draw those who think that voting by illegal immigrants is a problem to the polls. And these are people who tend to be Trump supporters. For MAGA Republicans, it’s a win-win.

Trump has long contended that between 3-5 million illegal immigrants broke the law and voted for his Democratic opponent in 2016, which was the only thing that kept him from winning the popular vote as well as the electoral college. He even appointed a commission, headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to look into the issue, which disbanded after months of work without finding any evidence of significant fraud.

Kobach responded indignantly, declaring: “For some people, no matter how many cases of voter fraud you show them, there will never be enough for them to admit that there’s a problem.”

In Washington, D.C. on May 16, a hearing of the House Administration Committee was held to look into what more can be done to prevent noncitizen immigrants from voting. Said the committee chair, Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, “American elections are for American citizens, and we intend to keep it that way.”

On the same day back in Wisconsin, a hearing on illegal voting by immigrants was held in the Wisconsin State Capitol. It was an enlightening event.

At this hearing Christina Boardman, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which issues driver’s licenses and voter ID cards, painstakingly explained how anyone seeking either document must attest to citizenship. She said she wanted to make it clear that “WisDOT is required to provide free identification cards for U.S. citizens that request them for the purposes of voting, and that to be eligible for that free identification card, one must be a U.S. citizen.”

According to Boardman, there have been 23 instances in the last 10 years in which people were referred to law enforcement for fraudulently requesting voting IDs. In nine of those cases, documents were issued that would have allowed people to vote.

Confronted with evidence that existing rules are working well, the GOP lawmakers declared these aren’t tight enough. They said it isn’t enough to just require that a person getting a driver’s license have to prove they are a citizen; the license itself should say so, right on it. Boardman said that would require a change in the law. Rep. Scott Krug, the Republican chair of the Assembly Campaigns and Election Committee, said hold my beer.

“We should do a bill,” he replied, vowing to “make it my mission this summer” to require state agencies to share more information to root out noncitizen voting.

One of the Democratic lawmakers in attendance, state Rep. Lee Snodgrass, drew national notice with her comment wondering why such a small problem is such a big concern: “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.”

The nonissue of voting by noncitizens is being milked by Republicans in order to curry favor with Trump and gin up distrust in the electoral process so that Trump and his allies can again claim fraud if he doesn’t win in November.

“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 top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, during a recent hearing. “The coup starts here. This is where it begins.”

And this is where it needs to end.

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