Buried in the avalanche of responses to President Trump’s lie that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally in the 2016 election was a comment made by Iowa Representative Steve King—the one elected official of any party to give any credence to Trump’s absurd claim. King put forth his own bald fabrication when he claimed that many undocumented immigrants illegally register to vote at motor vehicle agencies under the auspices of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, commonly known as “Motor Voter.”
After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which has long been a target of those hostile to the voting rights of African Americans and other people of color, no law in modern times has brought the franchise to more Americans than Motor Voter. Since the law’s passage, the DMV has been the most popular place for Americans to register to vote. In the 2012-2014 election cycle, the most recent cycle with available data, over 35% of voter registrations came through DMVs, more than double the number that came through any other source. One of the reasons for Motor Voter’s popularity is that it requires states to make registering to vote a simple and seamless part of applying for a driver’s license. The law requires that every driver’s license application be treated as a voter registration application as long as the applicant attests—by signing under penalty of perjury—that they are an eligible voter.
King’s irresponsible claim that Motor Voter is responsible for millions of illegal voter registrations is more than just false: vilifying Motor Voter represents a dangerous new assault on voting rights in the Trump era. Without Motor Voter, registration rates in many states would plummet, and would continue falling over time as currently registered voters who need to update their registrations would find themselves without a convenient way to do so.
And, King’s lie—like Trump’s fabricated claim of mass non-citizen voting—lacks any factual foundation. Only a handful of states even permit undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The largest, California, has taken scrupulous care to ensure that driver’s license applicants who are undocumented are not registered to vote. King’s suggestion that immigrants may knowingly be registering to vote strains all credulity. Undocumented immigrants have little incentive to register or vote illegally. Not only is falsely claiming U.S. citizenship a felony under federal law and the laws of most states; it is one of the few non-violent acts that is deportable even without a criminal conviction, and in most circumstances, it bars immigrants from ever returning to the Unites States or becoming U.S. citizens. Few immigrants would knowingly submit a false motor voter application when the consequences are so dire, much less the millions it would take for Trump’s and King’s lies to be even remotely plausible.
Trump and King’s comments—and Trump’s threat to investigate his fabricated tales of mass voter fraud—raise alarms about another key provision of Motor Voter—its protections against improper voter purges. King relies on unfounded reports by a tea-party affiliated Virginia group falsely claiming to have uncovered thousands of cases of non-citizen voting. Such groups, backed by former justice department lawyers from the George W. Bush administration, have been filing lawsuits to force local election officials to kick voters off the electoral rolls without factual basis or legal justification. The Virginia group filed a lawsuit before the 2016 election in Alexandria, Virginia, seeking to force the city to purge thousands of voters from its rolls without the protections required by the NVRA. A federal court dismissed that case, finding that the group’s legal claims, like its claims of non-citizen voting, had no factual basis.
In September, a different federal court found that Ohio’s purge of thousands of eligible voters in 2015 violated the NVRA and ordered the state to allow them to vote in November. Of course, all states conduct routine list maintenance to remove people who have died or moved away. But removing voters whose eligibility has not changed has become another page out of the vote-suppression handbook. Unfortunately, Trump’s recent call for a voter fraud investigation shows that a Justice Department under Senator Jeff Sessions, like the Bush DOJ, would likely join the efforts to force states to kick their own citizens off their electoral rolls, further disenfranchising U.S. citizens.
Motor Voter has proven effective in expanding voter registration in this country and bringing millions of eligible Americans into the democratic process. It is only to be feared by politicians who, like Trump and King, see their path to power only through a smaller, whiter electorate. American democracy depends on keeping voting free, fair, and accessible to all eligible voters, a goal that too many people have struggled for over the last decades for us to turn away from it now.