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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman May 23, 2017

Trump's commission vice chair Kris Kobach says immigration data not bounced against voter rolls

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who will help lead President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, says the federal government has data on millions of legal noncitizens ineligible to vote, but it has never compared its rosters to state voter rolls.

Kobach told Fox News he wants to change that as part of his role as vice chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, headed by Vice President Mike Pence.

"The Department of Homeland Security knows of the millions of aliens who are in the United States legally and that’s data that's never been bounced against the state's voter rolls to see whether these people are registered," Kobach, a Republican, told Fox News May 14.

Kobach later continued.

"So, one thing that's never been done before, that I alluded to earlier, is the Department of Homeland Security has a database of all known aliens, green card holders, temporary visas holders in the United States. And that has never been bounced against a state’s voter rolls to say well, hey, how many of these people, with this name, this date of birth, so you can get an exact match. How many of them are registered to vote in state A or state B?"

Kobach’s comments struck us as misleading, because of the widespread publicity about the problems Florida faced when attempting to use federal data to search for noncitizen voters.

The only DHS data we know of that includes these legal immigrants is Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE. SAVE has been used in a handful for states precisely for the purpose of weeding out ineligible voters. But when it was tried in Florida under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, it created so many problems that it was scrapped in 2012.

Kobach didn’t refer to SAVE by name on Fox News, and his spokeswoman didn’t directly answer our question as to whether that was the data he was meant. But there’s no other database of legal immigrants that we know of that could be compared to voter rolls.  

Implemented in 1987, SAVE provides government officials access to various databases, usually so various agencies can verify the citizenship status of an individual to determine eligibility for benefits such as Medicaid or Social Security. (This is not a database of illegal immigrants, such a full list doesn’t exist.)

SAVE has access to records on noncitizens who have been processed by federal agencies. For that reason, SAVE later became used by a few states for voter registration purposes.

Which places use SAVE?

Election officials in Florida, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia and several Arizona counties have reached agreements with DHS to use SAVE, but they aren’t necessarily active users. In fiscal year 2016, less than 1 percent of 20 million SAVE queries were for voter registration (or about 920).

Florida’s 2012 attempt shows why a state might decide to change course.

Florida election officials briefly used SAVE as part of a voter-purge effort. But doing so led to many errors, including wrongly identifying some citizens as noncitizens including four Polk County residents born in Puerto Rico, which automatically qualifies them for U.S. citizenship.  Yeral Arroliga, an immigrant from Nicaragua, was flagged as a noncitizen despite telling the Miami Herald he provided proof of citizenship.

State election officials ultimately scrapped using SAVE.

State election officials in Georgia and Virginia also told PolitiFact that they no longer use the system.

Colorado and North Carolina, however, still do.

Federal warnings said SAVE isn’t foolproof

The Homeland Security Department under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama has cautioned states about relying too much on the system for voter registration purposes.

Some state election officials including Kobach’s spokeswoman, Samantha Poetter, has said SAVE isn’t useful for voter registration purposes because the federal government puts too many restrictions on its use.

For state election officials to use SAVE, they need a person’s alien registration number or a naturalization certificate or certificate of citizenship -- information that election officials don’t typically have.

"SAVE access has not been granted in a meaningful way to any state," Kobach’s spokeswoman Samantha Poetter said. "The state must already possess an alien number assigned by the federal government."

While some states have said SAVE isn’t useful to them, others have found workarounds.

Colorado and North Carolina election officials told PolitiFact that they obtain information from drivers license records. A driver’s license shows that applicants are not citizens and then check to see if they registered to vote. If they obtain a match, then they run the person through SAVE. A match isn’t definitive -- because the information may be out of date. That’s why even a match in SAVE requires additional steps to determine if someone is not a citizen and therefore ineligible to vote.

North Carolina’s post-2016 election audit showed that 41 noncitizens with legal status, such as a green card, cast ballots. The audit identified an additional 34 voters who provided documents showing they are U.S. citizens, and investigators continue to review 61 additional records. That’s out of a total of nearly 4.8 million voters who participated in the November election.

Virginia election officials found SAVE wasn’t useful because the state doesn’t have the alien numbers.

However, Virginia uses another method: the names of those who check a box on a driver’s license form indicating they are not citizens is run against the voter registration list.  If that produces a match, it is forwarded to a local registrar who sends letters to the voters.

The current system works, Virginia's top elections official Edgardo Cortés said.

"Overall the processes states have in place -- the checks we have in the system with all the data sharing going on  -- we are able to identify folks who at some point are not supposed to be on the list and get them off,"  Cortés said.

Our ruling

Kobach says the Department of Homeland Security’s database of legal immigrants has "never" been "bounced against a state’s voter rolls."

There is a kernel of truth here, in that there has not been a widespread comparison of federal government data on immigrants and voter rolls in all the states to search for noncitizen voters.

However, Kobach misleads when he said that it has never been tried. A handful of states have used federal information about immigrants in SAVE to check voter eligibility. Some of them encountered issues with the system and have chosen not to keep using it.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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The Department of Homeland Security’s database of legal immigrants has "never" been "bounced against a state’s voter rolls."
Sunday, May 14, 2017

Our Sources

Fox News, Transcript, May 14, 2017

White House executive order, "Presidential Executive Order on the Establishment of Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity," May 11, 2017

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, SAVE, Accessed May 17, 2017

Kansas Secretary of State, Press release, April 12, 2017

Kansas Secretary of State, Press release, May 3, 2017

Government Accountability Office, Additional Data Could Help State and Local Elections Officials Maintain Accurate Voter Registration Lists, 2005

Virginia, Annual list maintenance report, July 2015-June 2016

North Carolina, Post-election audit report, April 21, 2017

U.S. District of Columbia, League of Women Voters vs. U.S. Election Assistance commission, Feb. 2, 2016

CNN, Kris Kobach interview, May 15, 2017

Fox and Friends, Kris Kobach interview, May 12, 2017

New York Times, "A  'Passionate' Seeker of Voter Fraud in Kansas Gets a National Soapbox," May 14, 2017

USA Today, "Trump's voter fraud battle faces court blockades," May 12, 2017

Lawrence Journal-World, "Kobach says he won’t pre-judge voter fraud panel’s findings," May 18, 2017

Miami Herald, "Gov. Rick Scott delivers mea culpa on voter purge," Oct. 6, 2013

Miami Herald, "Florida sends election departments list of 198 potential noncitizens; some may have illegally voted," (Accessed in Nexis) Sept. 26, 2012

PolitiFact Florida, "Noncitizen voter purge makes a comeback in Florida," Sept. 12, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "Homeland Security warned that the SAVE database is not foolproof way to verify the voter rolls, LWV says," Oct. 30, 2013

PolitiFact Florida, "One of the 'main functions' of the Department of Homeland Security’s SAVE database is 'checking voter registration citizenship status,' Ken Detzner says," Nov. 4, 2013

Interview, Samantha Poetter, Kansas Secretary of State spokeswoman, May 16, 2017

Interview, Steve Blando, U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman, May 17, 2017

Interview, Sarah Revell, Florida Division of Elections spokeswoman, May 16, 2017

Interview, Andrea M. Gaines, Director of Community Relations and Compliance Support, Virginia Department of Elections, May 17, 2017

Interview, Patrick Gannon, North Carolina State Board of Elections spokesman, May 17, 2017

Interview, Candice Broce, Georgia Secretary of State spokeswoman, May 16,  2017

Interview, Colorado Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert, May 16, 2017

Interview, Matt Roberts, Arizona Secretary of State spokesman, May 17, 2017

Interview, Hans A. von Spakovsky senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation who served on the  Federal Election Commission during President George W. Bush’s term, May 16, 2017

Interview, Michael McDonald, University of Florida political science association professor, May 16, 2017

Interview, Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, May 16, 2017

Interview, Justin Levitt, Loyola law school professor, May 16, 2017

Interview, Julie Houk, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, May 17, 2017

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