Washington (CNN)Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz claimed Tuesday that Democrats have intentionally “designed” their sweeping elections bill so that millions of undocumented immigrants would be registered to vote.
Cruz said at a Senate Rules Committee meeting that the Democratic bill that proposes major changes to voting, campaign finance and government ethics rules, known as the For the People Act, “directs” people “to break the law and register millions of people to vote who are not eligible to vote because they are not United States citizens.” Cruz said the bill “would register millions of illegal aliens to vote” — and he said “it is intended to do that” because Democrats think these immigrants are likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
Cruz also said the bill “automatically registers to vote anyone who interacts with the government,” regardless of their immigration status.
Facts First: All of these Cruz claims are false. There is no basis for the claim that the bill is intended to register millions of undocumented immigrants to vote. The bill does propose an automatic voter registration system, but its text repeatedly makes clear that only US citizens would be eligible to be registered under the system. It is just not true that the bill would register anyone at all who interacts with the government or that the bill directs people to break the law to register noncitizens.
What ‘automatic’ means and doesn’t mean
Automatic voter registration does not mean that everyone living in a jurisdiction is automatically registered if they have any dealings with the government. Rather, it means that eligible citizens are proactively registered unless they opt out, rather than requiring them to opt in. More than a third of US states already have automatic voter registration, and there is no evidence that undocumented immigrants are being registered to vote in large numbers there.
But noncitizens have also sometimes gotten erroneously registered in states without automatic voter registration.
And more to the point of this fact check, Cruz didn’t merely claim that history shows that some undocumented people would get inadvertently registered under the Democrats’ proposal. Instead, he repeatedly declared at the Tuesday meeting — and then suggested the same day on Twitter — that Democrats have deliberately written the bill to allow undocumented people to be registered in massive numbers.
That’s plain inaccurate. Just take a look at the part of the bill that discusses the proposed automatic voter registration system.
What the bill’s text says
The bill’s language about automatic voter registration clearly explains that people would need to be US citizens, as is the case today, in order to get registered to vote. In fact, a four-part section explaining the “purpose” of the system refers three times to “eligible citizens.”
The bill goes on to explain how automatic voter registration would work upon its implementation in 2023. The system’s central feature is that citizens who are eligible to vote and who have dealings with various government agencies — from a state Department of Motor Vehicles to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs — would get automatically registered to vote unless they chose to opt out, rather than having to choose to opt in to get registered.
The bill says that the government agencies would need to offer a voter registration opportunity each time someone applies “for service or assistance.” (Universities would have to provide a registration opportunity when an in-state student initially enrolls.) Agencies that already ask people to affirm their US citizenship during their normal operations would have to inform the US citizens that, unless they choose to opt out or are found ineligible to register, they are going to get registered or have their existing registration updated.
Agencies would also have to inform citizens of the criteria for being a lawful voter — one of which is being a citizen — and that they should opt out if they don’t meet these requirements. Then, if citizens don’t opt out, the agencies would have to electronically send their registration information to state election officials.
The bill explains that the agencies would have to send along not only a person’s name, birth date and address but “information showing that the individual is a citizen of the United States.” And the bill says the election officials then have to promptly ensure the person gets registered, but only “if the individual is eligible.”
The steps are slightly different for government agencies that don’t normally ask people to affirm US citizenship, but there, too, people would have to affirm that they are citizens before getting registered.
Current law doesn’t require proof of citizenship
A Cruz spokesman, Steve Guest, stood by the senator’s claims.
Guest noted that the bill does not require proof that someone is a citizen before registering them through automatic voter registration; someone’s written declaration that they are a citizen is sufficient to send them through the registration process. If Democrats did not actually intend to register millions of undocumented people, Guest argued, they wouldn’t have rejected Cruz’s proposed amendment to require hard citizenship evidence.
That’s an unfounded leap of logic. Rejecting a Republican amendment to make would-be voters provide documentation of citizenship is not confirmation that Democrats are trying to get undocumented people registered — especially, again, given how their bill already emphasizes that only citizens are to be registered. There are obvious benign explanations for opposition to citizenship documentation requirements, which would make some citizens put in at least some extra effort to get signed up to vote and would place an extra administrative burden on government agencies.
And here’s a critical piece of context: Current federal law, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also requires only an affirmation of citizenship for voter registration — in other words, no hard proof is required to register for federal elections now either — and there is no evidence of undocumented immigrants registering to vote in large numbers these days. Noncitizens face severe possible penalties, including prison time and deportation, for falsely claiming to be citizens in order to register or vote.
Also, a key site for automatic voter registration is state DMV offices — which, under the federal REAL ID requirements that are being rolled out across the country, are required to obtain hard proof of at least lawful immigration status before providing someone a standard license. The DMV in Oregon, a state with automatic voter registration, only sends elections officials the registration information of people who have provided proof of citizenship.
And the bill would not stop state and local election officials from inspecting their voter rolls. In Michigan, which has an automatic voter registration system, the Department of State does internal reviews and audits “to identify, catch, and correct cases in which non-citizens may have become inappropriately registered to vote,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.
An immunity clause
At the Tuesday meeting, Cruz noted that the bill immunizes noncitizens from being prosecuted, or harmed in an immigration proceeding, if they are improperly registered to vote through the automatic voter registration system. He claimed that the existence of this immunity provision is evidence for his claim that the bill is designed to register millions of undocumented people.
That’s another illogical leap.
Advocates of automatic voter registration say the immunity provision is in the bill to prevent a noncitizen from being arrested or deported in the unlikely event they are mistakenly registered because of a government error.
“Those provisions basically acknowledge the fact that there is some risk of the rare occasion where somebody is going to be registered inadvertently,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal organization that supports automatic voter registration. Morales-Doyle said “we know this hasn’t been a widespread problem,” but if it does happen, “those folks shouldn’t be subject to deportation because the state made a mistake.”
The bill explicitly says the immunity clause doesn’t apply to a noncitizen who deliberately makes a false statement to get registered or who casts a ballot even though they know they are breaking the law.