A License to Commit Fraud?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

The following piece was produced for the Huffington Post's OffTheBus by NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

By Bethany Foster

After a month of controversy over Governor Spitzer's plan to issue driver's licenses to all qualified New Yorkers, regardless of citizenship status, the perennial voter fraud myth has once again resurfaced. This time the tale is presented under the guise of preventing hit-and-run accidents and sky-high insurance rates by claiming that Democrats are trying to pad their base by encouraging illegal immigrants to vote. Last week, John Fund argued in the Wall Street Journal that the plan "stops just short of being an engraved invitation for people to commit voter fraud."

The Wall Street Journal is known for its economic news and commentary, so let's talk cost versus benefit: by deliberately registering and voting, a non-citizen risks five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and deportation. Simply put, by trying to influence the outcome of an election in this country, a non-citizen can be kicked out of this country. No wonder the Brennan Center couldn't find a single documented case in which a non-citizen, knowing that he or she was ineligible, registered and cast a ballot.

The cases of non-citizen registration and voting that do exist are stories of misunderstanding or confusion, not deliberate voter fraud. Ineligible voters can become registered, by their own error or that of an election official, without realizing that citizenship is a requirement for the franchise.

This inadvertent illegal registration and voting, as rare as it may be, is just another argument for universal voter registration. Voting lies at the heart of democracy and it should be the government's responsibility to affirmatively register every eligible citizen to vote. Universal registration would eliminate the arcane registration rules that allow some eligible citizens to fall through the cracks while unwittingly yet illegally registering some ineligible individuals.

Bethany Foster is a research associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and is a regular contributor to the ReformNY blog.