Red states ask voters to ban noncitizen voting

Lawmakers who back the prohibition cited a California court upholding a San Francisco voting law.
Signs showing the way for voters stands outside a Cobb County voting building during the first day of early voting, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Voters in seven states will decide on proposed constitutional amendments this November to bar non-citizens from voting in elections, part of an effort by conservative lawmakers to highlight immigration and election integrity issues they hope may boost voter turnout.

North Carolina lawmakers last month approved a proposed amendment to change a provision in their state constitution that guarantees the right of every naturalized, registered citizen over the age of 18 to vote. The proposed amendment would change the word “every” to “only,” precluding the prospects of non-citizens from accessing the ballot box.

Similar measures will appear on the ballot in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wisconsin — all states where Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and therefore the power to refer proposed amendments to voters.

In legislative debates ahead of passage, many lawmakers who back the prohibition on non-citizen voting have cited a 2023 California Court of Appeals ruling upholding a San Francisco law that allows some non-citizens to vote in school board elections. Those lawmakers said the amendments would guarantee that courts in their states would not rule in a similar fashion.

“Our constitutional language is nearly identical to the states where non-citizens are being allowed to vote,” North Carolina Sen. Brad Overcash (R) told Pluribus News. “This is an opportunity for the people to bring clarity to this issue in our constitution, and it does not leave any ambiguity for a future legislature to alter by statute or by acquiescing to a municipality that may attempt to allow non-citizen voting.”

Recent history suggests the proposed amendments have strong chances of passage by wide margins. In the seven states where bans on non-citizen voting have already passed — Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota and Ohio — voters approved those constitutional amendments by huge margins.

“It’s kind of a belt and suspenders approach to ensuring that the right to vote is vested only with those who are U.S. citizens and residents of the state of South Carolina,” South Carolina Sen. Chip Campsen (R) told fellow lawmakers in April, shortly before the legislature approved their version of the amendment.

“Is this fixing a problem that does not exist?” asked Sen. Darrell Jackson (D).

“Well it’s not going to exist until it’s too late,” Campsen responded. “You don’t have the problem until the problem arises, and if the constitution’s not already amended, then the problem is a real problem.”

Most of the measures passed this year have been approved by wide bipartisan majorities. In South Carolina, Jackson joined 10 of his Democratic colleagues and all 29 Republicans in supporting the bill.

Just a small handful of cities allow non-citizens to cast a ballot in any election. In Oakland and San Francisco, non-citizen parents of children in schools may vote on school board elections. Non-citizens in Washington, D.C., as well as 11 small towns in Maryland and three cities in Vermont, may vote in local elections.

A federal law passed in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton specifically prohibits non-citizens from voting in federal elections. That law does not apply to state and local elections, though no state specifically allows non-citizens to cast a ballot.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R) has scheduled a vote on the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act, a bill that would ban non-citizens from voting, for this week.

Academic studies and studies conducted by voting rights groups have found few instances of non-citizens casting or attempting to cast ballots in federal elections.

A 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, which backs voting rights, found 30 incidents of suspected non-citizen voting out of 23.5 million votes cast across 42 jurisdictions in the 2016 presidential election. In 40 of those 42 jurisdictions studied, officials found no instances of non-citizen voting.

But Republicans are conscious that Democrats have long used ballot measures — including measures to raise the minimum wage and, more recently, to guarantee abortion rights — to turn out voters who might not otherwise show up at the polls.

For the GOP, bans on non-citizen voting, which have overwhelmingly passed once they reach the ballot, may be a way to remind voters of the differences between Democrats and Republicans on immigration, a key issue in the presidential contest between President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“I don’t want to impugn the motives of my colleagues, but ultimately I think these are coming up because it’s a turnout issue,” North Carolina Sen. Julie Mayfield (D) said during her state’s debate, according to Ballotpedia.

Still, most Democrats in the North Carolina legislature — 32 in the House and 10 in the Senate, including Mayfield — voted to forward the proposed amendment to voters.