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Republicans aim to stop noncitizen voting in federal elections. It's already illegal

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks as former President Donald Trump listens during a news conference Friday at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks as former President Donald Trump listens during a news conference Friday at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.

Former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., appeared together Friday to tout legislation aimed at stopping something that is already illegal in America: noncitizens voting in federal elections.

Johnson gave a broad overview of a bill House Republicans will soon introduce that would implement new citizenship documentation requirements for people to register to vote, which experts have said would make voting harder for many eligible voters like naturalized citizens and young voters.

"We cannot wait for widespread fraud to occur," he said at a news conference at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. "Especially when the threat of fraud is growing with every single illegal immigrant that crosses that [southern U.S.] border."

The myth that immigrants are exerting undue influence on American elections has been floating around U.S. politics for more than 100 years.

Individual states began banning noncitizens from voting more than a century ago, and Congress passed a law in 1996 that explicitly banned the practice in all federal elections.

Numerous studies have also confirmed that it almost never happens, but as more conservative voters say immigration is a key issue for them, it's become clearer that election misinformation in 2024 will center on the topic as well.

Last month, NPR acquired a two-page memo being circulated by conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell, a former adviser to Trump, that pushed a number of false narratives around noncitizens voting. The document focused mostly on the implementation of a 1993 law that made registering to vote easier, and Johnson mentioned the law in his remarks Friday as well.

They both have also pushed the unfounded idea that the Biden administration is allowing migrants to cross the southern border for political gain.

"We believe one of the reasons for this open border ... is because they want to turn these people into voters," Johnson said, without providing any evidence.

Election officials verify citizenship in different ways in different states, but federal law requires voters to provide a unique identification number when they register to vote and because that is usually either a driver's license or Social Security number, election officials can usually work with those agencies to verify citizenship status.

"Most applicants use their [driver's license] to register," Tammy Patrick, a former local election official in Arizona who is now the CEO of the nonprofit Election Center, wrote in an email. "This number often serves as the validation of citizenship since most DMVs retain citizenship status in their databases."

Experts say introducing legislation, however, is a way for lawmakers to indicate to voters this issue is something to be concerned about, even as there's never been evidence to support the idea noncitizens are voting at anything other than miniscule numbers.

Since 2020, nine states have enacted new laws aiming to identify and remove noncitizens from their voter rolls, and legislation is currently active in 16 states, according to the Voting Rights Lab.

"Perception is 9/10 of reality," Ron Hayduk, an expert on noncitizen voting at San Francisco State University, said in an interview with NPR earlier this year. "Putting the solution on the table suggests there was a problem. And I think that's part of the point. [These laws] create a solution to a problem that doesn't exist."

Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, had his office perform a citizenship audit in 2022 that found fewer than 2,000 suspected noncitizens registering to vote in the state over the prior 25 years. None were actually able to cast a ballot.

"Noncitizens are not voting in Georgia," Raffensperger said in a recent interview with NPR, though he did laud Johnson and Trump's remarks Friday.

And a recent study in Arizona (first reported by The Washington Post) found that less than 1% of noncitizens attempt to register to vote, and even in those cases, the vast majority are thought to be mistakes.

Adding confusion to the issue, however, is the fact that a few local jurisdictions have moved to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. San Francisco, for instance, allows resident noncitizen parents and guardians to vote in school board elections, and some cities in Maryland and Vermont allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections.

Election officials in those jurisdictions implement practices to make sure those voters don't cast ballots in races they aren't supposed to.

But Hayduk says even in places where noncitizens can legally vote, they often don't. People he's interviewed about their experience in these places don't want to risk their status in the U.S. just to cast a single ballot — further proof, in his eyes, that this isn't an actual problem.

"Time and time again in the interviews we did, we heard from immigrants who said they were super excited about this new law to allow them to vote, and it felt like it affirmed their voices. ... But, you know, put themselves at risk? Not worth it," Hayduk said. "So clearly, they're not going to do that for a federal election where there's an explicit law passed in 1996 that would impose very serious felony crimes ... and that would certainly lead to their detention and deportation."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.