Monday, December 3, 2007

Non-citizens and Voter Registration

The Chicago Tribune offers a story today talking about the plight of Beth Keathley. According to the article, Ms. Keathley was in the process of becoming a permanent legal U.S. citizen, having already been issued a Social Security card and a state identification card, when she made the “mistake” of voting in a U.S. election. Due to this “mistake”, Ms. Keathley has apparently lost her job, and her citizenship application may now be in question which could lead to her eventual deportation.

According to U.S. law, non-citizens are not permitted to vote in U.S. elections. The crime committed by Ms. Keathley is one that apparently “trips up hundreds of immigrants each year”. What causes this issue in many instances, and aided in the mistake made in this case, is the ease in registering to vote. Voter registration locations are available in a wide variety of locations, encouraging people to participate in the election process.

However, it seems that state officials are “prohibited by federal law from seeking confirmation of citizenship before registering people to vote.” Although Ms. Keathley presented her Filipino passport at the time of registering, it seems that nobody either attempted to ascertain whether she was a legal citizen or advised her of potential ramifications of her voting illegally. In defense of their position in matters such as this, “federal officials say the question on the registration form that asks applicants to affirm they are citizens is clear enough.” However in this case, and presumably a number of others, “[s]he figured that if a state employee offered her the opportunity to register, it must be all right.” The federal government's position further loses support by the fact that many registrants leave this citizenship question blank and are still issued voter registration cards.

I believe the issue here, and in many similar cases, is neither the ease of access to voter registration nor the law preventing non-citizens from voting; instead, it would seem that there is a flaw in how the registration is performed. This case seems especially difficult to understand as a Filipino passport was presented as proof of identification for registration purposes. However, due to a federal law, the person assisting Ms. Keathley apparently had no choice but allow her to register, assuming she fully understood the application and that she could possibly be deported for improperly voting. As stated in the article, she relied on the fact that somebody, a state employee, had allowed her to register; for many, it would seem that the acts and/or words of such an individual would override any wording written on an application.

It is understandable that the government is attempting to prevent voter fraud, and as such “they have to enforce the laws”, but this case, and presumably many others, are simple cases of people not fully understanding their rights and relying on persons in authority positions to clarify these rights. A simple question of whether the person is a U.S. citizen – a question now forbidden to be asked under federal law – would seem to end any confusion and such problems with people who make honest mistakes. Such questions would seem especially appropriate when the person registering presents a foreign ID to the government official at the time of registration.

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