As more states begin providing illegal immigrants and their children with driver's licenses and ID cards, officials are concerned some also are registering to vote -- some by mistake, and others on purpose.
The problem came to light recently in North Carolina, which compared its voter rolls against a federal immigration database. The cross-check of 10,000 voters found 1,425 likely non-citizen voters, including 109 illegal immigrants or so-called "Dreamers." Almost 10 percent registered to vote when getting their driver's license. But election officials say the problem is nationwide.
"In terms of a check and balance that would prevent an individual who is a non U.S. citizen from registering to vote, that doesn't exist. There's absolutely nothing stopping them," said Neal Kelley, Orange County registrar of voters and chairman of the California Association of Election Officials.
The problem, officials say, dates back to the 1993 federal Motor Voter Act, which requires states to offer residents the ability to register to vote when they obtain a driver's license or ID card. In some states, the driver's license and voter registration application are on the same form, and the applicant simply signs. In small print, the form says applicants acknowledge they are U.S. citizens. In other states, voter registration is a separate form and applicants check a box. In either case, once signed, the forms are automatically sent to the county or state registrar of voters, and the name is added to voter rolls.
State DMV officials are not required to authenticate citizenship.
"They're asked to check a box that they're a U.S. citizen, but that's not good enough," said Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state. "We have so many aliens on our voter rolls who check that box -- either because they're trying to break the law or because they didn't know exactly what they were doing."
There are two ways to eliminate or slow the problem. While only U.S. citizens can vote, only four states require proof before registering: Kansas, Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. States can also compare voter rolls to a federal immigration database known as SAVE, or the Systemic Alien Verification System for Entitlements. Four states tried, but the ACLU and others sued, stopping Virginia, Iowa and Florida from purging voter rolls of non-citizens.
"We want the public to understand that people are not being proactive in dealing with this massive problem," said Jay DeLancy, director of the North Carolina Voter Integrity Project. "Any state that has DACA licenses, any state that offers any sort of driver's licenses to people who are not citizens has the problem."
The ACLU claims the federal immigration database isn't perfect and could disenfranchise voters.
Under the National Voter Registration Act, states are required to remove from their registration lists ineligible voters. But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder refuses to enforce the statute. Not a single such lawsuit has been filed since the beginning of the Obama administration, according to author John Fund.
"This is such a huge problem," Kobach said. "And once the aliens get on the voter rolls, solutions don't solve the problem. If you want to work with the federal government, they’re going to make you jump through a whole bunch of hoops."
Use of the SAVE database, while not perfect, isn't cheap. Each name cross checked costs a state or county 50 cents.
In Maryland, a voter integrity group obtained a list of residents who were removed from jury duty because they were non-citizens. Among them, 509 were also registered to vote. The group, Virginia Voters Alliance, claims up to 7 percent of Maryland's registered voters could be non-citizens.
"Yes that can occur," said Kelley. "Whether they're a felon on parole or a non-U.S. citizen or somebody else who may be ineligible to register to vote, they can end up on the rolls."