Georgia GOP, Trump builds on immigration fears to push voting restrictions in states – WABE

With polls showing unauthorized immigration is Republicans' biggest issue this fall, the GOP wants to sound the alarm about non-citizens and undocumented people voting.

The multifaceted effort was advanced in congressional legislation, in public statements from top election officials and U.S. senators, in plans from grassroots activists and in posts by former President Donald Trump and others on X.

Concern over illegal immigration and border security was Trump's central campaign theme when he won the presidency in 2016, and polls show it remains the GOP's strongest political weapon in 2024. A Feb. 27 Gallup poll found that 28% of respondents viewed it as the Republicans' strongest political weapon, the most important issue in the country, far ahead of any other issue.

At an April 2 rally in Michigan, Trump addressed the recent murder of a local woman, Ruby Garcia, who police said was killed by her undocumented boyfriend.

“We kicked him out of the country and corrupt Joe Biden let him back in and let him stay and he brutally killed Ruby,” Trump said.

But the party is also using the issue to step up its ongoing efforts to stoke fears of voter fraud and push for more restrictive voting rules. And false and misleading claims were often spread about undocumented immigrants voting.

Allegations of election fraud

Voting by non-citizens is extremely rare. That's because, election advocates say, non-citizens are particularly careful not to do anything that could jeopardize their status in the country.

A voter fraud database from the conservative Heritage Foundation, covering several decades in which billions of votes were cast across the country, contains 29 entries mentioning noncitizens. In some of them, a non-citizen registered but did not vote.

Still, in recent weeks, Republican secretaries of state from Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as at least two U.S. Senate Republicans, have been the latest to denounce the issue.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wrote in a March 12 editorial that “left-wing activist allies” of President Joe Biden “want to open the gate to voting for noncitizens.”

At issue is a lawsuit challenging a measure in Georgia that requires people registering to vote to provide proof of citizenship.

Voting rights advocates behind the lawsuit say the requirement is unnecessary and could create a barrier to registration for some voters, particularly naturalized citizens who may not have easy access to citizenship documents.

In the editorial, Raffensperger, who famously resisted pressure from Trump to help undermine Georgia's 2020 election results, attempted to link the issue of illegal voting by undocumented immigrants to the burgeoning efforts of some Democratic-led cities, including Washington, D.C. to allow legal non-citizens to vote in local elections.

He has pushed for a constitutional amendment in Georgia that would prohibit the state's local governments from granting non-citizens the right to vote.

“Left-wing activists have already shown that they want to change the laws that require voters to be U.S. citizens,” Raffensperger wrote. “A constitutional amendment would eliminate any possibility of future efforts to change these laws.”

DOJ Program Warning

Days earlier, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice warning that a federal program aimed at making voter registration easier for people in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prison. could lead to registration not only of unauthorized criminals, but also of people without papers.

“Because of the Biden administration’s border policies, millions of illegal aliens have not only been allowed to enter this country over the past three years, but they have also been allowed to stay. “Many of these aliens were in the custody of a Department of Justice agency, including the Marshals,” Watson wrote in the letter his office provided to States Newsroom.

“Giving ineligible non-citizens information about how to register to vote will undoubtedly encourage them to register to vote illegally.”

The Justice Department program is part of the Biden administration's response to the president's sweeping 2021 executive order aimed at using federal agencies to expand access to voter registration. Republicans have condemned the order as an inappropriate attempt to use public resources to advance partisan political goals. There is no evidence that the order resulted in ineligible voters being added to the electoral rolls.

Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen and Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., also sought to raise concerns about non-citizen voting in an exchange at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 12. The two Alabama Republicans accused the federal government of denying election officials the tools they need to verify citizenship.

“I think (citizenship verification) is more important now than ever, especially given what is happening at the southern border,” said Allen, who testified before the panel.

At the same hearing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used his time to ask witnesses whether they agreed that only U.S. citizens could vote in federal elections – something that is already required by law – and that people, Those who register to vote should also be required to provide proof of citizenship. Lee later posted a clip of the exchange on X.

Memo requires proof of citizenship to register

Also last month, conservative election activist Cleta Mitchell, who played a key role in Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election, distributed a memo about “the danger of not voting in 2024.” The memo, published online by a conservative advocacy group, called for a federal law that would require, among other things, proof of citizenship when registering.

“There are countless left-wing interest groups registering illegals to vote,” Mitchell wrote, an accusation for which she provided no evidence.

But the party's efforts to link voting rights and immigration have been going on for some time this election cycle. Last March, as States Newsroom reported, a group of prominent conservative voting activists came together to promote a so-called national campaign to “protect voting at all levels of government as the exclusive right of citizens.”

Months later, Republicans in Congress introduced a sweeping election bill that aimed to capture Republicans' top priorities in their push to tighten voting rules and included a full section on barring noncitizens from voting.

Among other things, the measure would give states greater access to federal citizenship data and make it easier for them to remove people marked as noncitizens from the lists. It would also penalize states that allow noncitizens to vote in local elections by reducing their share of federal election funding.

With Democrats controlling the Senate and White House, the bill has little chance of becoming law.

Non-citizen voting legislation

Separately, the House Administration Committee has passed seven different bills addressing non-citizen voting in the current session of Congress alone.

Last year, the House voted to use Congress's authority over the District of Columbia to repeal D.C.'s law granting non-citizens the right to vote – the first time the House has voted to pass a bill since 2015 of the district. The Senate did not pass the bill.

A Republican lawmaker introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to ban non-citizens from voting.

Legal voting for non-citizens has a long history in the United States. In the mid-19th century, at least 16 states enacted measures granting non-citizens the right to vote, often to attract workers to underpopulated Western states.

These laws were gradually repealed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period in which a broader fear of mass voting led to Jim Crow laws in the South and laws restricting voting rights for Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the North.

Some prominent figures have falsely suggested that Democrats are slowing down border security to capitalize on the votes of undocumented people.

“That’s why they let these people in — people who don’t speak our language — they register them to vote,” Trump said at a January rally in Iowa. “And I think that's why millions of people are pouring into our country, and that could well have an impact on the next election. That’s why they do it.”

Elon Musk, the billionaire technology entrepreneur, takes a similar view.

“The Democrats will not be deported because every illegal immigrant is most likely a choice at some point,” Musk told his over 170 million followers in a Feb. 26 post on X, which he owns, commenting on news that an undocumented immigrant cannot had been deported despite a series of arrests. “This simple incentive explains the seemingly crazy behavior.”

U.S. Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, charged in a 2022 television ad: “Joe Biden's open border is killing Ohioans with more illegal drugs and more Democratic voters pouring into this country.”

Kansas law

One figure who may have done more to promote the danger of non-citizen voting than anyone else is Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach. As state secretary of state, Kobach pushed for a law requiring voters to show proof of citizenship.

A federal court ultimately struck down the law because it found “no credible evidence” that many non-citizens had registered to vote before the law was implemented. The law was responsible for leaving tens of thousands of voter registration applications pending during an election.

Kobach went on to lead a voter fraud commission launched by the Trump White House in 2017 that pushed for a federal law similar to the Kansas law. The panel disbanded the following year without providing evidence of widespread voter fraud.

WABE content partner Georgia Recorder contributed this story.