Ohio’s top elections official says he’s worried that President Obama’s executive order on immigration will make it easier for non-citizens to vote. But the numbers don’t bear out his concern.
In a letter to the president released by his office Wednesday, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, warned that the order will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and social security numbers, opening the door to illegal voting. “By enabling millions of non-citizens to access valid forms of the types of identification required to register to vote, the recent executive actions have increased the risk that non-citizens may illegally register to vote and vote in our elections,” Husted wrote.
“The debate over voter fraud and voter access already breeds significant hyperbole from across the political spectrum,” he added. “Your recent executive actions will invite even more, and have very real and lasting implications for the integrity of our elections.”
Husted, whose support for restrictive voting rules already has drawn national attention, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer he’s so concerned that he plans to bring the issue up with other secretaries of state at a conference next week. And he’ll soon be testifying before Congress at a hearing on the implications for government of Obama’s immigration order.
The White House declined to comment on the letter. But a look at the facts doesn’t appear to support Husted’s level of alarm.
To register to vote in any state, one already must attest on penalty of perjury to being a citizen. The first question on Ohio’s form asks, in bolded type, about citizenship status. The form prominently tells applicants that providing false information is a felony.
More important, there's little evidence that non-citizen voting is currently a problem in Ohio, or that it will become one under Obama's order. Non-citizens can already obtain driver’s licenses in Ohio. There are 197,383 valid Ohio driver’s licenses that are held by non-U.S.-citizens, according to Lindsey Bohrer, a spokeswoman for the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles. But in the 2012 election, just 17 non-citizens voted in the state, according to a 2013 investigation conducted by Husted himself. "It exists, it's rare, violators will be held accountable," Husted said at the time.
Now, because of Obama’s executive order, around 25,000 undocumented immigrants in Ohio will potentially be eligible for deferred action — and thus able to obtain a driver’s license — according to numbers from the Center for American Progress. If the ratio of non-citizen driver’s licenses to non-citizen voting remains the same in the state, the order would lead to approximately two illegal votes being cast. And that assumes that everyone who becomes eligible for a driver’s license will get one, which certainly won’t be the case.
It’s also worth noting that the president’s order is designed to exclude the type of people who might be likely to commit fraud—that is, people who have abused the visa system, have criminal records, or are threats to public safety or national security. Applicants for deferred action also go through a rigorous background check.
And advocates for undocumented immigrants say there isn’t even any evidence in the first place of a link between illegal voting and non-citizens getting driver’s licenses. “If he was identifying a correlation between undocumented people getting driver’s licenses and a propensity to vote illegally, I would say yes there is a concern here we need to address,” said David Leopold, a Cleveland-based immigration lawyer. “But this is mere speculation based on what appears to me to be political opposition to deferred action.”
Husted’s concerns aren’t shared by at least one of his fellow secretaries of state. “Under our current system, you have to swear you are a citizen in order to register to vote,” said Tony Green a spokesman for Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, who has won praise for efforts to expand voting opportunities. “The penalty for lying is a felony prosecution, a fine, potential jail time and deportation. Secretary Brown is confident that the penalty is sufficient to ensure the security of our voter rolls.”
Still, attacking Obama’s immigration order is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser on the right. Twenty-six states, almost all of them controlled by the GOP, have sued to have the order overturned.
Husted easily won re-election last fall, and has been talked about as a future Ohio governor. And since taking office in 2011, Husted he’s earned a national reputation as a supporter of making voting harder. Though he has opposed his party’s efforts to impose voter ID, he has waged a years-long fight to cut early voting opportunities, and last year he succeeded.
Husted isn’t the only Republican election official to express concern lately about the threat of non-citizen voting. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is currently fighting in court to be able to require proof of citizenship from people registering to vote. Around 22,000 voter registration applications in the state went unprocessed ahead of last fall’s election because the applicant didn’t provide proof of citizenship.