By JOE MAHONEY
CNHI State Reporter
ALBANY — Critics of New York’s new law allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses say that measure coupled with efforts to make it easier to vote have opened up security gaps in the election system.
Noncitizens in New York are prohibited from participating in federal, state and local elections.
But Republican lawmakers and some county clerks say the new ability of people who are in the county illegally to get New York licenses through the Green Light legislation that took effect in December could fuel voter fraud.
“There is now a much higher possibility that someone is going to register to vote that should not be registered,” said Sen. Rob Ortt (R-North)Tonawanda.
He was among the Republicans who voted against the Green Light measure that took effect Dec. 16, legislation that resulted in some Department of Motor offices being flooded with undocumented people seeking licenses, learner’s permits and motor vehicle registrations.
Adding to the concerns for those worried about the integrity of the voting system is a measure that passed the Democratic-led state Senate Jan. 9 that would allow automatic voter registration for people who interact with such state agencies as the Department of Health and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Democrats, in promoting that bill, pointed out that 16 states and Washington, D.C., already have some form of automatic voter registration.
Another measure aimed at expanding the pool of voters — the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year old voters — is already on the books. Those who are pre-registered automatically become registered voters when they turn 18.
But it is the Green Light measure that has been getting the most attention in the skirmishes over voting concerns. In December, just as the law took effect, Sen. Chris Jacobs, (R-Erie County) announced new legislation that would require first-time voters to prove they are United States citizens before they cast ballots.
“With the Green Light Law taking effect it will be incredibly simple for illegal immigrants to register to vote, especially since the Green Light Law specifically prohibits employees from asking a person’s citizenship while registering to vote at the DMV,” Jacobs said when introducing the bill.
Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause/New York, an advocacy group that supports expansions of voting rights, called the Jacobs proposal “a voter suppression tactic.”
Lerner said the opportunity for voting fraud is “minimal,” and the automatic voter registration legislation will result in New York ending up with voter rolls that are “cleaner and more accurate than the ones we have now.”
“We hear a lot about rampant voter fraud from all over the country — but no one can actually find it,” said Lerner, contending such claims exaggerate the extent of the problem.
‘AS LONG AS THERE
The automatic voter registration bill passed this year by the Senate bars state agencies from forwarding voter applications to local boards of elections when those people are known to be ineligible to vote.
Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) said he has “serious concerns” about the approach taken by Democrats, though he supports efforts to boost turnout “as long as there are safeguards to protect against fraud at the ballot box.”
Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project, scoffed at assertions New York’s voting system is ripe for fraud.
Anyone facing potential prosecution for alleged violation of immigration laws would likely avoid amplifying the risks that would ensue from misrepresenting themselves to election inspectors, Grossman said.
Grossman also pointed out that for more than 20 years federal motor voter law has required states to offer people a chance to register to vote.
Noncitizens, he added, could already get licenses in New York long before Green Light allowed undocumented immigrants to qualify for licenses, and voter fraud has remained extremely rare.
Citing state-collected data, he said there have been just 13 arrests for illegal voting in New York since 2002.
John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said his agency typically does not weigh in on proposed state legislation and did not advance comments on the Green Light measure before it passed last year.
Conklin acknowledged that a person who has obtained a state driver’s license “now has one of those pieces of identification that could help you to register to vote,” but only if they falsely claim they are a citizen.
“There is no way for us to determine who is a citizen and who isn’t,” Conklin told CNHI.
Conklin also said he has fielded calls from noncitizens who said they had inadvertently registered to vote when they got their driver’s licenses and then contacted the Board of Elections because they were nervous it could impair their applications for U.S. citizenship.
“Some people do it inadvertently, but there are also people who might do it intentionally, and now they are armed with a piece of identification they couldn’t get before,” he said.
‘TO SET THE TABLE’
Ortt pointed out the automatic voter registration bill shields ineligible people from prosecution if they end up registering as voters because it will be presumed it happened inadvertently.
“The only reason you would put that in there is because you anticipate it is going to happen,” the senator said.
“There is clearly a drive here to set the table to allow noncitizens to vote,” Ortt added.
A measure allowing non-citizen immigrants to vote in local elections was introduced in the New York City Council Jan. 23. In California, the city of San Francisco has been allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections since 2018.
Common Cause has not taken a position on the issue in New York, Lerner said.
She said the concerns about voter fraud in New York are misplaced. The critics, she suggested, should be focused on the “hostile nation states that want to change our elections. That is the real concern — not a random person who might register to vote by accident.”