Thursday, September 23, 2004

U.S. citizens who go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide local, state and national elections are likely to get more help from noncitizens this year than ever before.

Beyond requiring applicants to sign a pledge on voter-registration forms affirming that they are U.S. citizens, there is no way to prevent the nation’s estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens from casting ballots in November, area elections officials said.

Locally, only Virginia requires voters to provide their Social Security numbers, but the state does not require voters to show their Social Security cards.

“There is no way of checking,” said Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone. “We have no way of doing that. We have no access to any information about who is in the United States legally or otherwise.”

Nationally, immigration experts said it is likely that illegal immigrants vote, but that only a small percentage does so.

“Evidence suggests very few illegal aliens vote, but it’s certainly not zero,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies. “Illegal aliens don’t come to America to vote, and would generally try to avoid doing so.”

Today, there are roughly 8 million illegal aliens in the United States who are of voting age, he said.

Mr. Camarota said more legal immigrants who are not citizens might be voting illegally.

“The whole system isn’t well-guarded,” he said. “There’s no system in place to really prevent illegal aliens from voting or even to deter them from voting.”

Six Maryland municipalities — Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Garrett Park, Barnesville, Martin’s Additions and Somerset — allow noncitizens to vote only in local elections. However, in state and national elections, voters must meet the state standards for voter registration.

Given the predicted close election this year and the 2000 election that was decided by a small number of votes, Mr. Camarota said even the few aliens who do vote could make a difference in the results.

Only first-time voters are required to provide photo identification in Virginia and the District. No jurisdiction requires voters to show proof of citizenship at the polls.

No federal agency keeps records of which undocumented immigrants are in the country, Mrs. Lamone said.

Maryland does ensure, through an extensive process of cross-database checks and balances, that there are no deceased persons or felons on its voter rolls.

Barbara Cockrell, assistant secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said the state has a computerized voter-registration system that uses Social Security numbers as unique identifiers. The state constitution requires that voters provide their numbers, which she said are kept private.

Miss Cockrell said asking on the registration forms whether applicants are citizens provides the needed safeguards.

“They take an oath under penalty of perjury,” she said. “After the first time, we don’t ask them to bring ID.”

Bill O’Field, a spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said the penalty for lying on the voter-registration form is a maximum five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine.

Other than for first-time voters who registered by mail, “there’s no checking of ID,” he said.

Dan Stein, president of the D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said relaxed voting regulations and the ability to register to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles allows illegal immigrants to get a form of legitimate identification.

“There are huge fraud problems out there,” he said. “There’s no safeguards on it.”

He also said those groups pushing voter-registration efforts this year don’t check to see if registrants are citizens. This flaw has the potential to “corrupt” the political system, he said.

“Aliens have already shown they are willing to break U.S. law to come here. Why should we expect them to not vote?” Mr. Stein asked. “In a system where virtually no effort is made to ensure integrity, we’d be naive to say it isn’t going on. You only need one vote to swing an election.”

Peter Rubin, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, said many groups are “interested in suppressing the votes of minorities and using illegal tactics as a way of scaring people from coming out to the polls.”

“That has happened in many elections,” he said. “These tactics are real, continue to be used, and are underreported. It should be of concern to everyone, especially now, when everyone’s vote matters.”

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