1. For over a quarter century, federal law has guaranteed eligible citizens the opportunity to register to vote at their state department of motor vehicles. “Motor Voter” programs have made voting more accessible to millions of Americans and made our democracy stronger and more representative. In Rensselaer County, New York, however, the simple act of registering to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is now fraught with significant risk. Under a plan announced last week, citizens residing in Rensselaer County must subject themselves to the possibility of federal investigation if they wish to register through New York’s Motor Voter program. At a time of heightened fear over federal immigration enforcement, including sweeping raids of households, mistaken detention, and even deportation of U.S. citizens, Rensselaer County officials have pledged to turn over voter registration data of United States citizens to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on an immediate and ongoing basis, in flagrant disregard of both federal and state laws prohibiting such disclosures. The purpose and predictable effect of this conduct is to intimidate eligible citizens out of registering to vote.
2. The Defendants are the Rensselaer County Board of Elections, Rensselaer County Board of Elections Commissioner Jason Schofield, Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola, and Rensselaer County Legislature Chairperson Michael Stammel. On July 18, 2019, the Defendant officials announced by press release that “[e]ffective immediately,” the Rensselaer County Board of Elections would begin providing ICE with voter registration information, including names and addresses, of all individuals who register to vote at the DMV. Defendant Stammel stated that the County is “pleased that we will be working with I.C.E. to provide this information.” Defendant McLaughlin stated that the County would “work hand and hand with the brave men and women of I.C.E. ensuring they have all the tools and resources at their disposal to protect the integrity of our voting process.” Defendant Merola revealed the depth of the expected involvement of ICE, stating that the Defendants intended to have “I.C.E. assist in reviewing voter registration documents.” Defendant Schofield stated that he and the Board of Elections would “fully cooperate with I.C.E. on this important matter.”
3. Defendants’ conduct violates federal law in at least two ways. It threatens to intimidate eligible voters out of registering to vote at the DMV, in violation of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 52 U.S.C. § 10307(b). And subjecting all Motor Voter registrations to federal immigration scrutiny unconstitutionally burdens the fundamental right to vote in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
4. Tying voter registration to threats of investigation by federal immigration officials is frightening and will intimidate eligible voters out of participating in the electoral process. It will deter eligible U.S. citizens from registering to vote at the DMV, because those citizens do not want to be subjected to indiscriminate scrutiny by ICE and they reasonably fear the catastrophic consequences that could follow—even if they have done nothing wrong. ICE is a law enforcement agency with the power to conduct investigations, raid homes and workplaces, arrest and detain individuals, divide families, and deport people. Its databases are notoriously error-prone and out of date, resulting in detainers being wrongfully placed on hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. citizens each year. ICE has in fact deported U.S. citizens based on inaccurate information.
5. United States citizens in Rensselaer County with mixed immigration-status families are particularly likely to be intimidated by Defendants’ sharing of their voter registration information with ICE. Many citizens are related to, or live with, noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, asylees, refugees, beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, people with Temporary Protected Status, or people who are undocumented. The predictable result of Defendants’ actions will be to cause these citizens to refrain from registering to vote in Rensselaer County for fear of triggering an ICE investigation that could threaten their loved ones.
6. Some citizens may refrain from registering to vote because they are afraid they themselves could be targeted for denaturalization proceedings or immigration enforcement based on erroneous information about their status—reasonable fears given known inaccuracies in ICE databases and the zero-tolerance policies of the current administration, as well as well-founded concerns about racial or ethnic profiling.
7. Engendering fear among voters for availing themselves of the lawful and legally protected opportunity to register to vote through the Motor Voter program is not only the obvious consequence of Defendants’ scheme to disclose voter registration information to ICE; it is the clear intent. That this is so is all the more evident because the Defendants have no lawful, legitimate basis for their scheme. Voter registration information is sensitive and is protected from inappropriate disclosure by both New York election law and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). The NVRA, which requires states to establish Motor Voter programs, expressly prohibits the disclosure of information concerning the agency or office at which a voter registers, and proscribes the use of information collected through a Motor Voter program for any purpose other than voter registration.
8. Defendants’ purported rationale for sharing voter registration data with ICE—that a new state law that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses will somehow lead noncitizens to register to vote—is pretextual. Noncitizens have long been eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses in New York and there is no evidence that this policy has resulted in a surge of fraudulent voter registration by noncitizens. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia already provide driver’s licenses to undocumented persons, with no resulting spike of undocumented persons registering to vote. Indeed, a noncitizen who registers to vote already violates federal law and is subject to significant penalties. Furthermore, ICE is responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws. It plays no role in administering voter registration or elections, or in enforcing election laws, and it does not offer citizenship verification services to local election officials.
9. The intimidation of eligible citizens who can register to vote at the DMV is causing and will cause significant harm to Plaintiffs.
10. Plaintiff Jenifer Benn is a U.S. citizen and Rensselaer County resident who is eligible to vote. Having learned about Defendants’ plan, she is unwilling to register to vote at the DMV because she fears that doing so would subject her to an ICE investigation and would be harmful to herself, her family (which includes noncitizens), and the community.
11. Plaintiff organizations New York Immigration Coalition, Common Cause/New York, Community Voices Heard, and Citizen Action of New York are voter engagement, education, and advocacy organizations whose missions are frustrated and undermined by Defendants’ conduct. They will have to divert resources toward registering voters who would have otherwise registered at the DMV, toward outreach to educate voters about their rights and dispel the fear caused by Defendants’ announced policy, and toward this litigation. Common Cause/New York and Citizen Action of New York also have members who are residents of Rensselaer County and who will be adversely affected by Defendants’ policy.
12. Thus, threatened by their own County government officials, Plaintiffs now turn to the federal judiciary for protection.
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