In late January 2017 the message above began circulating online, holding that resident non-citizens in the U.S. were learning via letters sent by state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices that they had been registered to vote without their knowledge or consent. U.S. residents who have not become naturalized citizens do not have the right to vote in non-local elections (whether or not they have been granted permanent residency status), and such persons could therefore face criminal penalties and/or deportation for registering or voting:
In the United States, only citizens are allowed to vote in national and statewide elections. And while immigrants who are granted permanent residency — a green card — enjoy an array of privileges, including the right to work, they can lose them all and be expelled from the country if the authorities discover that they have even registered to vote … Officials with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes immigrants’ visas and naturalization petitions, say the agency does not keep records of how many noncitizens have been caught violating voting laws. Many election law experts said there was no evidence that the violations happened frequently — or at least enough to skew election results.
But for those who do register to vote and get caught, the penalties can be severe. Lawyers at the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit group for low-income New Yorkers, said that they had handled at least eight cases in the past few years involving permanent residents who faced deportation because they had registered to vote.
Noncitizens who are convicted in criminal court of having made a false claim of citizenship for the purpose of registering to vote in a federal election can be fined and imprisoned for up to a year, then deported.
Advocates for immigrants said that in most cases, those who violated the voting law did so unwittingly.
Reports that the letters referenced above appeared in Burlington, Vermont, as well as Ulster County, New York, and California, exacerbating fears by suggesting the problem was widespread and occurring in several states, possibly setting up thousands of non-citizens for deportation from the U.S.
Since the rumor was first attributed to Burlington, Vermont, we contacted city officials there to ask whether they were aware of the rumor or had information about its veracity. A city representative with whom we spoke provided a relatively concise explanation for the claim: as of January 2017, the “motor voter” field in forms used by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) changed from opt-in (“check this box to register”) to opt-out (“check this box if you don’t wish to register”). A failsafe system for identifying ineligible voters did not work properly, thereby leading to the inadvertent voter registration of some ineligible residents immigrants (in the state of Vermont alone).
We also contacted Vermont’s central DMV office, who provided us with more information. First of all, a DMV representative pointed out, non-citizens were not at risk for criminal penalties or deportation over the issue addressed here, as state law makes accommodation for ineligible persons who were inadvertently registered to vote through clerical error:
A person who makes a false statement in completing a voter registration application form or the voter registration portion of an application for a motor vehicle driver’s license or nondriver identification card knowing the statement to be false shall be subject to the penalties of perjury as provided in 13 V.S.A. § 2901, except that a person who is not eligible to register to vote and who otherwise completes the application accurately shall not be considered to have made a false statement under this subsection by his or her unintentional failure to decline to register on a motor vehicle driver’s license or nondriver identification card application under section 2145a of this chapter.
The DMV representative also explained that the changes to voter registration went into effect on 1 January 2017, but the programming glitch that was creating unintentional voter registrations for non-citizens had been identified within three weeks. All data transfers pertaining to voter registration were halted as of then, and at the time of this writing they had not been reinstated while testing was ongoing to ensure all systems were functioning properly.
The department said they were aware of a total of five green card holders affected by the programming bug, some of whom were affected because they updated their residence addresses or other information (even if they had not visited a DMV office). After the glitch was discovered and data transfer was halted on 20 January 2017, all relevant transactions between 1 and 20 January 2017 were marked for review to ensure no erroneous registrations were recorded. Moreover, no ineligible persons were able to vote due to the glitch
Although there was a grain of truth to the original story (that some individuals unexpectedly received letters informing them that they were registered to vote despite the fact they were not citizens), that circumstance was not the result of fraud on the registrants’ or part of an attempt to set up non-citizens for deportation.
Semple, Kirk. “For Some Immigrants, Voting Is a Criminal Act.”
The New York Times. 15 October 2010.
The Vermont Statutes Online. “17 V.S.A. § 2145c.”
Accessed 6 February 2017.