Florida state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, ignited a firestorm of criticism when he said congressional districts should not be drawn to benefit potentially illegal Hispanic immigrants and that the state should first check their citizenship.
Here's what Hays said at an Oct. 18, 2011, meeting of the Senate reapportionment committee:
"Before we design a district anywhere in the state of Florida for Hispanic voters, we need to ascertain that they are citizens of the United States. We all know there are many Hispanic speaking people in Florida that are not legal, and I just don't think that it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow. If we know registered voters are people who have proven their citizenship then that's a completely different story, but I'm not aware of any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote."
Reapportionment is a once-in-a-decade process that divides the U.S. House's 435 seats among the states based on the results of the U.S. census. In 2012, Florida will add two new congressional seats as part of that realignment. It's up to Hays and the other members of the state House and Senate to redraw the maps to include the two new seats.
What Hays might have been getting at in his comments (we don't know for sure because his spokesman said he didn't want to comment) is that the census attempts to include all people living in the United States, including illegal immigrants, children and legal immigrants who cannot vote. So while some people are talking about a proposal to draw a Hispanic-majority congressional district in Central Florida -- an area that has seen considerable growth in the Puerto Rican population -- Hays was at least suggesting it was possible that many people living there might be doing so illegally. Therefore, according to his thinking, they should not have a seat drawn to benefit them.
We'll get one thing out of the way: People from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens and have been since 1917. If they're living in Florida, they are eligible to vote in Florida.
But what about the requirements to register to vote? Hays said you don't need to prove that you're a citizen in order to cast a ballot.
That's what this Truth-O-Meter item will focus on.
Registering to vote
Floridians can register to vote a variety of ways -- but the most common registration method is at driver's license offices. In 2010, more than 270,000 people registered to vote at driver's license offices. The second-most common method was what the state division of elections calls the "other" category, which includes registering in person at supervisors of elections offices.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the Motor-Voter law, went into effect in 1995 in Florida and was intended to boost turnout by allowing residents to register to vote at driver's license offices, other federally designated voter registration agencies and by mail.
The national law does not address the question of proof of citizenship, but each state has its own laws about registration requiring that only citizens vote, according to Bryan Whitener, a spokesman for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
In Florida when drivers apply for a driver's license, they must provide proof that they are in the country legally. U.S. citizens could show a passport or a proper birth certificate to verify their citizenship. Immigrants who are not U.S. citizens would have to provide the proper visa.
Applicants who prove they are citizens are asked if they want to apply to register to vote, said Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The driver's license office then sends along that voter registration application to the Secretary of State. Applicants who are not citizens are not given the option to register to vote, Howard said.
But non-citizens may still obtain a driver's licenses if they are in the country legally -- including immigrants who have green cards, Howard said. The documentation requirements to get driver's licenses have been tightened as part of the Real ID Act implemented in Florida in 2010 as part of a nationwide effort to tighten the security of driver's licenses and state IDs to fight terrorism. This state website about the Real ID Act explains the criteria for citizens and non-citizens to get driver's licenses. By December 2017, everyone in the U.S. will need a license that is compliant with the Real ID Act in order to fly or enter federal facilities.
But what if someone walks into a supervisor of elections office and asks to register to vote?
In those cases, people registering to vote must sign an oath on a registration application attesting that they are qualified to vote and that all the information on the application is true. (Usually at driver's licenses offices applicants who want to apply to register to vote don't have to sign that particular form since the office already has their signature as part of the driver's license application process.)
The application includes a question: Are you a citizen of the United States? If you answer no, the form says "you cannot register to vote."
We asked state Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate if the state does anything to verify citizenship.
"The answer is no," he said. "The law doesn't require someone to provide proof of citizenship when they register. If they swear, attest and sign under oath that their information is accurate and that they are a citizen we will accept their voter registration."
State law does not require any new voter applicant to provide proof or evidence of eligibility other than a sworn statement that he or she satisfies all the requirements to be able to register -- including being a citizen (or being 18, or living in Florida), Cate told us in an e-mail. The only information that is required to be verified is a personal identifying number such as a driver's license number or state ID or the last four digits of their social security number. It's possible for non-citizens to have those documents, and the purpose of providing them is to verify identity -- not citizenship.
A person who willfully submits false voter registration information or votes knowing that he or she isn't qualified to vote can be charged with a third-degree felony.
Individual supervisors of elections do have the ability to determine if an applicant is an U.S. citizen, Cate said, though it would be difficult for a supervisor to ascertain citizenship.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said the state doesn't "forbid any election official from determining the eligibility of any voter -- that is the role of any supervisor of elections. The state has no requirement for checking citizenship and there is no easy way to do it since the INS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) is not available to do any checking."
But Sancho said the idea that illegal residents are voting is "laughable it's so wrong."
"We are not seeing any problem with illegal citizens voting in the U.S. anywhere, not just in Tallahassee or Florida. It's a canard that illegal individuals are registering and voting. ... Voting requires putting your name and address on an official document and that is not something undocumented individuals tend to do."
The local elections supervisor in Hays' own district, Lake County, sees it the same way.
"We've never had a problem with illegal voting in Lake County, no way,'' said Emogene W. Stegall, who has served in the county's election's office for 40 years.
Cate said the state doesn't track how many times non-citizens attempt to, or actually manage to, register to vote.
Sen. Hays said that Florida doesn't require "any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote." There is a kernel of truth here: According to the state Division of Elections, state law doesn't require new voter applicants to prove their citizenship in some physical sense. They simply must sign a sworn statement attesting that they meet the voting requirements -- including being a citizen.
But there are a couple of critical caveats.
First, willfully lying on a voter registration form about your citizenship status can lead to a felony conviction. Second, the most common way to register to vote in Florida is during the process of obtaining a driver's license -- in 2010, 57 percent of those who registered to vote in Florida chose that method. And during that process, people are asked to verify their citizenship.
Lastly, we have to consider the experiences of two actual supervisor of elections, who said there is no widespread problem of illegal immigrants registering to vote.
For those reasons, we rate this claim Mostly False.