State elections officials unable to use Homeland Security database of legal immigrants for voting eligibility

The following is a press release from David Ammons communications director for the Secretary of State.

Washington election officials have determined that the state will be unable to use a federal Homeland Security database of legal immigrants to check voting eligibility.

In July, Secretary of State Sam Reed requested access to data on over 100 million immigrants as a further way of reviewing the accuracy of the state’s voter registration rolls. But further research and inquiry made it clear that access is possible only if a state has “alien registration” numbers, which typically accompany immigration documents provided as proof of legal presence during the licensing process in other states.

Washington does not require proof of legal presence before a driver’s license is issued, and so there is no way to use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, said Shane Hamlin, state elections co-director. SAVE, designed to check eligibility for various social and health programs, includes both naturalized citizens, who are entitled to vote, and other legal immigrants who are not allowed to vote, such as people here on work or student visas and on green-card status. The database does not list illegal aliens.

Reed expressed disappointment that the state does not have the information required to use the SAVE program, and urged the 2013 Legislature to approve a bill to require driver’s license/ID card applicants to show proof of legal presence, and to retain the alien registration number provided.  That way, the state could compare information in the statewide Voter Registration Database with information on immigrants, he said.

The Legislature has taken up the issue in recent years, but has never passed a bill.  Only Washington and New Mexico do not have such a requirement.

“I have stated repeatedly that it has never been our intention to, quote, `purge’ voter rolls in any discriminatory or insensitive way, or to suppress voting in any way,” Reed said. “That is not the way we operate in this state, which was and continues to be settled by immigrants.

“But we do have a strong and continuing commitment to keeping our voter rolls updated and accurate, so that only qualified citizens are allowed to vote.  We have made major strides in recent years in regularly reviewing our rolls to make sure we do not have duplicate registrations or incarcerated felons or deceased people still on the roll.”

In the court challenge of the 2004 gubernatorial election, the judge found that 1,678 people had voted illegally, including felons, deceased, and others, he noted. Since then, the state has created a computerized voter registration database and has obtained access to reliable government databases that are used to screen for deceased voters, incarcerated felons and others who are not eligible to vote. The state is a lead participant in new project that allows interstate registration comparisons, to track people who are registered in more than one state.

“To maintain voter confidence in our elections process, we simply cannot tolerate illegal voting,” Reed said. “No one should want that. Our commitment to the voters must be to keep our voter rolls accurate and up-to-date.”

At the same time, Reed said he, the Elections Division and the counties have a clear commitment to registering all qualified residents of the state and encouraging them to vote in every election. Reed, who has administered elections most of his adult life, noted his personal visits to college campuses, high schools, civic groups, senior centers and other groups to promote registration and voting.  He said the Elections Division and the counties do outreach to minority language communities, those with disabilities, and others to make sure every qualified resident feels included. The state sponsors a mock election for school children to get them thinking about elections and voting.

“We in Washington are trying to transcend the partisan politics and rancor we have seen in some states on this obviously sensitive issue of voting rights,” Reed said, adding that Washington and its governors and lawmakers have never been accused of voter suppression, as some states have been. “Despite the critics on the right and the left, we are dedicated to BOTH keeping the voter rolls cleared of illegal voters AND registering all legally qualified voters. That is the `sweet spot’ that gives us an election system the voters want and support.”



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