The Potluck

Would automatic voter registration allow non-citizens to vote?

By: - January 10, 2023 7:48 pm

Sen. Zaynab Mohamed at a “Driver’s Licenses for All” press conference in January 2023. Photo by Grace Deng/Minnesota Reformer

Minnesota Democratic lawmakers this session are proposing to expand driver’s license eligibility to people without legal permission to reside in the U.S. At the same time, they are proposing to automatically register everyone to vote. Could the people here illegally use the new license to vote? 

Yes, but it’s a felony with steep consequences. And Democrats say their automatic voter registration has safeguards in place so that non-citizens won’t be registered.

State House and Senate Democrats — with some Republican backing — have proposed driver’s license eligibility expansion for years, and they now say passing the measure is a top priority. Gov. Tim Walz said he supports the effort — he appeared at a recent press conference dubbed “Driver’s Licenses For All.” The House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee heard the bill Tuesday morning and was scheduled to continue hearing the bill on Tuesday evening.

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, is leading the charge in the House to broaden the eligibility for a Minnesota driver’s license or ID card so people can get one without proof of citizenship. The license would look identical to every other Class “D” license. Gomez said the legislation brings the state back to where it was prior to 2003 — when the state under GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty started requiring proof of legal residence to obtain a license.

Advocates, including in law enforcement, say issuing licenses to undocumented people would make roads safer because fewer drivers would be operating without license, while also saving Minnesotans money as the number of uninsured drivers decreased.

Still, some Republicans say this current effort could allow non-citizens to vote.

“Allowing an undocumented immigrant to acquire a driver’s license that looks exactly like the license used by a legal Minnesota resident is asking for trouble,” said Rep. John Petersburg, Republican lead for the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, in a statement. “There are no safeguards included in this bill, which means the potential for voting and state program abuse is strong.”

State law says a person is allowed to vote in Minnesota if they are a U.S. citizen, are at least 18 years old on Election Day, have been a Minnesota resident for at least 20 days, don’t have an active felony sentence and no court has ruled that the person is legally incompetent.

In order to register, a person needs to show a valid Minnesota ID, or a photo ID plus a document with their current name and address, such as a utility bill or residential lease.

A person could technically present a driver’s license they obtained through Gomez’s bill if it were to pass. That person would need to sign a statement attesting to their U.S. citizenship at the polling place if they were to vote — something the vast majority of people illegally residing in the U.S. aren’t willing to risk, said Michele McKenzie, deputy director of the Advocates for Human Rights.

“The penalties under federal immigration law that people would face are so severe. We just don’t see people attempting to register or attempting to vote,” McKenzie said, adding that it’s a deportable offense with a potential lifetime ban if a person illegally residing in the U.S. is caught voting.

Republicans, however, say there aren’t enough precautions to prevent non-citizens from voting under this bill.

“We all want safe roads and we can do it in a way that doesn’t completely overrun our system with fraud and abuse,”said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Fairbault, in a statement.

Jasinski said Senate Republicans will voice their concerns to the chamber’s Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Could a person who’s obtained a driver’s license under the new eligibility be automatically registered to vote if that measure also passes the DFL-controlled Legislature?

Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL-Minneapolis, said if a person without legal permission to live in the state obtains a license, they will not be automatically registered to vote.

Under her bill, automatic voter registration would occur if a person has proven their U.S. citizenship to the state’s Department of Public Safety — Drivers and Vehicle Services Division, through an application or transaction. 

The bill would allow the Office of the Secretary of State and DVS to share data to automatically register voters if they’ve shown DVS proof of U.S. citizenship, like a passport or birth certificate.

For example, a person who submitted an application for a new driver’s license would be automatically registered if they previously provided proof of citizenship and their application was approved. A person who hasn’t proven their citizenship would not have their data used for automatic registration.

Cassondra Knudson, spokesperson for the Office of Secretary of State, said in a statement that the move to expand license eligibility would have “minimal impact on voting in Minnesota.”

Non-citizens — like people living in the state under green card status — may receive a driver’s license but are ineligible to vote. This “Drivers Licenses for All” bill would be similar, the bill’s proponents say. 

“If someone was found to have lied about citizenship, they could face deportation, denial of future citizenship and or fines and imprisonment under federal law,” Knudson said.

Data from 2019 show Minnesota had about 81,000 undocumented residents, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“Holding a driver’s license does not automatically make you a voter,” McKenzie said. “The fear just doesn’t actually bear out. It’s a red herring.”

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.