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Republicans keep up push for stronger voting laws

Congress debates the need for proof of citizenship

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, explaining the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act at the Capitol, May 8. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Republicans keep up push for stronger voting laws

Arizona has two sets of voter registration requirements. At the local level, the state asks registering voters to provide documented proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport. For federal elections, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) prohibits Arizona from enacting a similar prerequisite.

Michael Thielen, president and executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA), often works with attorneys on state-level voter integrity policy. At an RNLA conference on Friday in Arlington, Va., Thielen argued the disparity between local and federal registration practices isn’t helping anyone.

“The problem with having a separate citizen list for local elections or state elections than you do in a federal election is that you’re forcing government registrars or election officials to keep two lists,” Thielen told me. “They have a hard enough time keeping one list clean.”

Out-of-date or inaccurate voter registration lists could make it easier for noncitizens to participate in elections illegally, Thielen said. It’s a concern that’s front-of-mind for another attendee at Friday’s convention: U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La.

Last week, Johnson and other House Republicans unveiled the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility (SAVE) Act. The bill marks the most recent effort by conservative lawmakers to shore up federal voting requirements ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. It also acknowledges longstanding concerns about election integrity articulated by former President Donald Trump.

Speaking at the conference, Johnson said illegal immigration at the nation’s southern border has the potential to affect election outcomes.

“We have no idea how many people have come in totally undetected. Technically the got-aways number is 71 million,” Johnson said, referring to border crossers spotted but not apprehended by the Border Patrol. “If just one out of a hundred of these people vote, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of votes.”

The SAVE Act would modify the NVRA to require proof of citizenship before states register voters to participate in federal elections. If a registrant could not provide proof of citizenship, states could allow alternate verification methods supported by the signed affidavit of a state official. The bill also would require states to create programs dedicated to weeding out noncitizen registrants in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. And finally, the act would expand the punishment for noncitizen voter fraud to state officials who assist in fraudulent registration—a penalty that could mean up to five years behind bars.

Technically, the NVRA (also known as the Motor Voter Law) doesn’t explicitly prohibit states from requiring proof of citizenship. Instead, the law requires that states give residents the opportunity to register to vote using the information they submit when they apply for a driver’s license. The law states that“the voter registration application portion of an application for a driver’s license may not require any information that duplicates information required in the driver’s license portion of the form.” Because license applications merely request that registrants attest to their status as a citizen, the same goes for voter registration.

Opponents of the bill argue that recorded instances of noncitizen voter fraud are few and far between. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, found only 24 convictions for noncitizen voting between 2003 and 2022. Additionally, Democrats like Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., note that the requirements in the bill won’t change any eligibility standards.

“Noncitizens cannot vote. That’s the law of the land,” Garcia said. “What’s shameful is that somehow Republicans think noncitizens are voting. As a person who could not vote when they were 18 because they were a noncitizen, I know how strict and serious this issue is. These are all attacks on people that are undocumented.”

In response to that criticism, Republicans say voter fraud may not be showing up on paper because of the lax requirements for federal elections.

“Under the National Voter Registration Act an illegal alien who wants to vote in a federal election can do that because there’s nothing standing in their way,” Johnson said during his remarks on Friday. “Under the current law, all you have to do is check one box on the form and sign it. ‘Are you an American citizen?’ Check. There’s no proof requirement.”

Johnson pointed to evidence collected by states such as Georgia. In 2022, a citizenship audit conducted by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger found over 1,600 noncitizens had attempted to vote and 2,258 voter registrations had a “pending citizenship” status. The audit was the first of its kind in Georgia.

When asked if he believes voters have a good understanding of challenges facing states, Thielen said he thinks voters tend to assume election integrity is a problem in other parts of the country but not their state.

“It seems in many places like a ‘just San Francisco’ problem. But places like Georgia, Texas, Florida—they all passed laws to make it more transparent in the election process. Now that’s a good thing,” Thielen said.

Johnson promised to bring the SAVE Act to the floor for a vote but did not say when that would happen.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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