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When people register to vote, they sign a form attesting under penalty of perjury that they are a citizen and eligible to vote.
Cases of noncitizens voting are statistically rare. Some noncitizens accidentally end up on voter rolls when applying for drivers’ licenses.
States can check various databases in an effort to verify citizenship status, although some of those efforts have produced errors and are flawed.
One of President Donald Trump’s many recent complaints about the U.S. election system is that states are lax in securing their voter rolls.
"Most Americans would also be shocked to learn that no state in the country verifies United States citizenship as a condition for voting in federal elections," Trump said in his 46-minute speech overflowing with falsehoods about voter fraud. "This is a national disgrace."
Trump has made false statements about noncitizen voters since his 2016 campaign, relying on faulty evidence. He’s revived the talking point in the weeks since the Nov. 3 election, which he lost to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.
In this case, he has a point that the federal form that registers someone to vote doesn’t require documentation to show proof of citizenship. But Trump left out the efforts by many states to cross-check their records with available data to avoid this problem.
People who wish to register to vote must attest under penalty of perjury that they are citizens and eligible to vote, according to federal law.
The consequences for noncitizens registering or voting include deportation, incarceration or fines. Noncitizens risk that a government official will check their voting record during a background check if they apply for naturalization.
"So anyone who’s not a citizen, and lies, is setting themselves up not only for future prosecution, but tanking their ability to become a citizen some day," said Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt.
In an Arizona voting case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that states are obligated to permit registration for federal elections using the federal form, which does not require documentary proof of citizenship. States may have their own form, but they must be willing to accept the federal form. Trump’s spokesperson didn’t respond to our request for evidence, but he specified "federal elections" in his statement.
It’s not apparent from Trump’s claim, but many states have tried various means of confirming the citizenship status of voters. These methods have not been foolproof and have led to some errors and legal fights.
Some states have permission to use a federal resource of data, called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, for the purposes of verifying that voter registration applicants are citizens. Implemented in 1987 and administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, SAVE was originally intended to verify eligibility for government benefits, such as Medicaid. SAVE , is not a database of people who are U.S. citizens, but it will show a person’s immigration or citizenship status.
Arizona and Colorado election officials told us that they use SAVE. Florida tried, but it did not go well.
Florida election officials briefly used SAVE in 2012 as part of a voter purge effort, but it wrongly flagged many voters including a Brooklyn-born World War II veteran. The state scrapped the effort.
Some states look at driver’s license records to see whether any noncitizens also registered to vote. But driver’s license records can be outdated and may not reflect if a noncitizen later became a naturalized citizen. That’s part of why an effort in Texas to find noncitizen voters fell apart in 2019.
Wendy Underhill, an election expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that in some states, driver’s license records are better for verifying citizenship than they’ve ever been. Some state driver’s license systems are set up to ask a person if they want to register to vote only after they have shown a birth certificate or naturalization paper that proves citizenship.
We contacted election officials in a few states to ask what steps they take to verify that voters are citizens.
In Colorado, election officials review the entire voter registration database to see if anyone is registered who showed a non-U.S. credential to receive a driver’s license. The state uses the SAVE database as needed.
In Georgia, applications for voter registration are compared with data from the state Department of Driver Services and the Social Security Administration.
In cases where the information does not match or an applicant is flagged as a noncitizen, the application is moved to pending status, and the applicant is notified as to how to resolve it, said Joe Sorenson, a spokesperson for Gwinnett County, outside Atlanta. The steps include a list of acceptable documents for proof of citizenship that can be submitted immediately or when they vote. They are not moved to the voter rolls until they can prove citizenship.
Four states have laws on the books that require additional proof of citizenship to register at the time of application, but only Arizona’s is actually in effect, said Dale Ho, director of the voting rights project at the ACLU.
In Arizona, applicants using the state registration form must provide proof of citizenship to be a "full ballot" voter to cast votes in local, state and federal races. That proof can be a state-issued ID such as a driver’s license, as long as they obtained it while they were citizens, or other forms such as naturalization documents, birth certificate or passport. If the applicant provides a driver’s license number, election officials will verify their citizenship using state motor vehicle records.
If applicants attest that they are citizens but provide no proof and the state can’t verify their citizenship, those applicants can vote in federal races only. About 25,000 of the state’s 4.2 million voters are "federal only" voters.
Kansas, Alabama and Georgia also have laws requiring documentary proof, but none is in effect, Ho said. Kansas’ law was struck down in federal court in April; Alabama and Georgia never enforced their laws.
A spokesperson for the Kansas secretary of state told us that they don’t independently verify proof of citizenship.
Trump said, "No state in the country verifies United States citizenship as a condition for voting in federal elections."
The kernel of truth here is that the federal form to register to vote doesn’t require documentation to prove citizenship. But applicants who use that federal form, or register using state forms, must attest to being citizens. Voter registration forms warn applicants that signing the form with false information is a crime. There have been scattered cases of non-citizens who cast ballots, but among millions of votes cast they are statistically rare.
Some states told us that they access federal or state databases to verify citizenship of voters. Such methods have sometimes erroneously flagged citizen voters. While they are not foolproof, they do contradict Trump’s claim that no states verify U.S. citizenship for federal elections.
We rate this statement Mostly False.
Rev.com, Donald Trump Speech on Election Fraud Claims Transcript, Dec. 2
U.S. Department of Justice, The National Voter Registration Act of 2003
U.S. Election Assistance Commission, National Voter Registration Form
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, SAVE
NPR, Some Noncitizens Do Wind Up Registered To Vote, But Usually Not On Purpose, Feb. 26, 2019
Supreme Court of the United States, Secretary of State of Kansas vs Steven Wayne Fish brief in opposition of respondents, 2020
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU school of law, Proof of Citizenship Action Illegal, Federal Suit Says, Feb. 12, 2016
Texas Tribune, Texas will end its botched voter citizenship review and rescind its list of flagged voters, April 26, 2019
New York Times, Illegal Voting Gets Texas Woman 8 Years in Prison, and Certain Deportation, Feb. 10, 2017
PolitiFact, 46 minutes of falsehoods: Trump rehashes baseless election claims in White House video, Dec. 3, 2020
PolitiFact, Trump tweets that 58,000 noncitizens voted in Texas. That hasn't been proven, Jan. 28, 2019
PolitiFact, No evidence ‘many’ illegal immigrants voted in midterm elections, as Lou Dobbs said, Nov. 16, 2018
PolitiFact, Following Trump voter fraud allegations, claim that 5.7 million noncitizens voted is wrong, June 22, 2017
PolitiFact, Trump's commission vice chair Kris Kobach says immigration data not bounced against voter rolls, May 23, 2017
PolitiFact, Fact-check: Did 3 million undocumented immigrants vote in this year's election? Nov. 18, 2016
PolitiFact, Donald Trump wrongly says 14 percent of noncitizens are registered to vote, Oct. 24, 2016
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
Email interview, Ari Schaffer, Georgia Secretary of State spokesperson, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, David Becker executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Patrick Gannon, North Carolina state board of elections spokesperson, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, C. Murphy Hebert, Arizona Secretary of State spokesperson, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Andrea Gaines, Virginia Department of Elections, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Maggie Sheehan, Ohio Secretary of State spokesperson, Dec. 4, 2020
Email interview, Justin Levitt, Loyola law school professor, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview with Edward B. Foley, Ohio State University law professor, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Dale Ho, Director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, Dec. 4, 2020
Telephone interview, Ben Hovland, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Dec. 4, 2020
Telephone interview, Michael Morley, assistant professor Florida State University, Dec. 3, 2020
Email interview, Katie Koupal, Kansas Secretary of State spokesperson, Dec. 4, 2020
Email interview, Wendy Underhill, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Dec. 4, 2020
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