A law set to go into effect in 2023 in Massachusetts would enable immigrants with non-legal status to obtain a driver’s license. The legislation has led to a debate in the state as to whether the law could affect election integrity.
Currently, eligible voters can choose to be automatically registered to vote when applying for a driver’s license at the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) (here).
WHAT CHANGES WOULD THE NEW LAW BRING?
The bill would eliminate a restriction that says a driver’s license cannot be issued unless a person has lawful presence in the United States.
Voters in Massachusetts will vote on whether to keep or repeal the law in November's midterm elections (here).
Supporters of the law argue that allowing people who live illegally in the state to get a driver's license will increase safety on the roads, adding that driving is an essential mode of transport within Massachusetts (here) (here) (here) (here).
WHAT DO CRITICS SAY?
Governor Baker, who opposes the legislation, in a veto letter signed May 27 stated the then-bill “significantly increases the risk that noncitizens will be registered to vote” (here).
“This bill [HB 4805] also fails to include any measures to distinguish standard Massachusetts driver’s licenses issued to persons who demonstrate lawful presence from those who do not. Additionally, it restricts the Registry’s ability to share citizenship information with those entities responsible for ensuring that only citizens register for and vote in our elections,” he wrote at the time.
When asked what specifically about the legislation would lead to an alleged increase in voter fraud risk, Baker’s office directed Reuters to his veto letter.
Baker’s concerns are shared by the Fair and Secure Massachusetts committee (www.fairandsecurema.com/), the group behind campaign efforts to overturn the bill. Its chairwoman, Maureen Maloney, whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant driver, according to local media (here), has urged voters to repeal the law.
Maloney told Reuters the bill should not have been passed without established processes in place to ensure that only eligible people are automatically registered to vote.
“Why were these safeguards not in place prior to the passing of this law?” she said in an email.
“Also the RMV has been riddled with scandals and yet this is the agency that the legislature is entrusting with making sure the illegal immigrants opt out of voting and are not erroneously registered to vote,” said Maloney, a reference to criminal convictions in 2013 and 2017 involving RMV employees and their role in issuing driver’s licenses to people who presented identity documents that were not their own and to noncitizens, respectively.
Some social media users also expressed concern the bill could lead to voter fraud, including election candidates. Cecilia Calabrese, a Republican candidate for Massachusetts State Senate, wrote on Twitter: “Because in Massachusetts when you get a Driver’s License you are AUTOMATICALLY registered to vote! People that are in Massachusetts illegally are not to be rewarded with a Driver’s License that will enable them to vote in our elections.” (here).
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a Democrat who is running for reelection this year, has dismissed claims the law will impact voter registration, telling the Boston Globe that “nothing could be further from the truth” (here). He also told Politico on May 5, “The license issue has nothing to do with voting.”
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS TO VOTE?
In order to be eligible for voter registration in Massachusetts, a person must be a U.S. citizen, at least 16 years old and not incarcerated due to a felony conviction at the time of registration (here) (here).
HOW AUTOMATIC VOTER REGISTRATION WORKS IN MASSACHUSETTS
Massachusetts is one of 22 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, that have implemented or enacted automatic voter registration, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) explains (here) (here).
At the RMV, an eligible voter can be automatically registered to vote, unless they choose to opt out, when applying or renewing a driver’s license or a learner’s permit (here).
Voting eligibility is determined by providing the RMV with a U.S. birth certificate, a U.S. passport, or naturalization papers, an RMV spokesperson said.
Legal residents who are not U.S. citizens can currently apply for a driver’s license in the state. The information of a driver’s license applicant who proceeds with voter registration is only sent to local election officials if the applicant has provided the RMV with a U.S. birth certificate, a U.S. passport, or naturalization papers.
These measures prevent undocumented persons from being registered to vote at the RMV, said Debra O’Malley, the director of communications at the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, adding that additional checks are in place.
“Each day, the RMV sends to our state voter database a batch of new registrations, which are distributed to queues for each local election official to review and certify. Before those registrations are submitted, the RMV screens the list for any person who has not yet provided evidence of lawful presence,” she said. “The RMV further filters out those who have not provided evidence of citizenship as their proof of lawful presence.”
Local election officials then review and certify voter registration applications that the RMV should already have screened beforehand.
Charles Stewart III, the founding director of the MIT Elections Data Lab, said the RMV limits the applicants it sends to election officials to cases where these supporting documents are provided as proof of applicants’ eligibility to vote.
Additional validation of eligibility is then done by local election officials after receiving this information from the RMV, before adding voters to the state voter database, Stewart said.
WHAT WILL BE THE LICENSE REQUIREMENTS FOR UNDOCUMENTED MIGRANTS?
Per the law, set to be implemented by July 2023, immigrants not lawfully in the country applying for a license in the state must provide two documents for proof of identity and age (here).
This can include a valid unexpired foreign passport, a certified copy of a birth certificate, a valid unexpired foreign national identification card or a foreign driver’s license. The legislation establishes that the date of birth and a photograph of the applicant should be included in at least one of the submitted documents. For documents that are not in English, applicants must include “a certified translation.”
The law also specifies that the RMV “shall establish procedures, and may promulgate regulations” to ensure that an applicant for a Massachusetts license without proof of lawful presence “shall not be automatically registered to vote.”
Reuters contacted Galvin’s office, the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the agency that holds the Massachusetts Elections division – which oversees the elections in the state (here).
When asked what the office planned to implement, O’Malley told Reuters it was in conversations with the RMV to create such regulations.
“We have already discussed suggestions for additional security measures that we would like to see added to non-citizen driver’s licenses in an unobtrusive fashion that would allow our state voter database to flag and reject any registrations listing that type of driver’s license number. We intend to continue those discussions with the RMV and the Governor’s office through the implementation of the law, if that occurs.”
At least 17 other states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, according to the NCSL (here).
NON-CITIZEN VOTING IN FEDERAL, LOCAL ELECTIONS A CRIME IN MASSACHUSSETTS
Non-citizens face various legal consequences if convicted of illegally registering to vote in Massachusetts (here).
Unlawful voter registration and unlawful voting are both deportable offenses (see “falsely claiming citizenship” and “unlawful voters”) (here). They would also "prohibit" someone from becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, said Stewart.
In Massachusetts, illegally registering to vote, or attempting to do so, is punishable with a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to five years (here).
“It is a federal crime for non-citizens to vote in federal elections,” Michelle Mittelstadt, the director of communications at the Migration Policy Institute, told Reuters in August. “There is virtually no evidence that non-citizens are engaging in voter fraud by voting in elections for which they have no right to vote.” (here)
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work (here).
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