Illegal immigrants voting? Not according to election officials

Jeremy Duda//August 30, 2011

Illegal immigrants voting? Not according to election officials

Jeremy Duda//August 30, 2011

The 2012 election cycle is underway and familiar allegations that illegal immigrants are registering to vote or casting ballots are already cropping up again, but election officials from across Arizona say the oft-made claims are little more than urban legend.

Election officials from all 15 Arizona counties and the Secretary of State’s Office told the Arizona Capitol Times they can’t recall any instances of illegal immigrants trying to commit election fraud. What fraud they have seen is mostly from legal immigrants, many of whom were told by organizers of campaigns that they’re allowed to register to vote.

Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said she could recall a couple instances of legal immigrants registering to vote, but never an illegal immigrant.

“In my 40-some-odd years … I have never known of an illegal alien trying to vote,” Osborne said. “They’re too afraid to be in the system.”

Most recently, Attorney General Tom Horne accused the Obama Administration of opposing an Arizona law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when they register so illegal immigrants could cast ballots for the president next year. And opponents of a recall effort against Senate President Russell Pearce accused one woman who signed a recall petition of illegally registering to vote, alleging that she may be an illegal immigrant.

Some county election officials, especially in southern Arizona, frequently receive complaints from people who believe illegal immigrants are registering or voting. Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said the allegations she gets generally come with no corroborating evidence, with some people calling in an alleged violation based solely on the fact that they heard a voter speaking Spanish.

“I always tell these people and I always ask — name me one and we’ll start the investigation,” Rodriguez said. “Some of us think it is a myth and it had a life of its own.”

Such allegations cropped up in Yuma County shortly before the 2010 election.

Bloggers, the Arizona Republican Party and some elected officials accused activist groups that were encouraging and assisting voters with early ballot requests of trying to register and obtain ballots for illegal immigrants. Those charges were rejected by Secretary of State Ken Bennett after his office and the Yuma County Recorder’s Office conducted a joint investigation.

GOP congressional candidate Jesse Kelly alleged that there was a video proving that southern Arizona Democrats were busing in people from Mexico to vote, but state Elections Director Amy Bjelland said an investigation determined that the charges were unfounded and that no such video existed.

Even if an illegal immigrant or legal noncitizen tries to register, election officials say there are adequate safeguards that weed them out. Since voters approved Proposition 200 in 2004, Arizonans have had to produce identification to show their proof of citizenship when they register to vote. Those who register online still go through checks because the registrations are checked against the Motor Vehicle Division’s database, which includes information on whether a license belongs to a citizen or noncitizen.

If there are questions about a voter registration form, election officials call the would-be voter and ask him or her to come in and provide additional information. And if there are still questions at the polling place, voters get provisional ballots that aren’t counted until their information can be verified.

But those assurances are little comfort to some who believe there are far more illegal immigrants trying to vote than the records show.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he believes voting by illegal immigrants is a major problem and may have swayed the results of the 2010 election in Arizona’s

7th Congressional District between Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva and Republican challenger Ruth McClung.

Even if election officials say they’ve seen few cases of voting by illegal immigrants, Smith said there may be a lot more they don’t see.

“How would they know? They don’t walk in and say, ‘I’m an illegal alien and I want to vote.’ That’s why it’s called fraud. It’s deceptive,” Smith said.

Attorney General Tom Horne said he believes hundreds of illegal immigrants may have cast ballots in the 2010 election, and accused President Barack Obama of trying to make it easier for them to do so by joining the legal challenge against Prop. 200.

“The case was several years old and (the feds) intervened in the last few weeks to argue that Arizona should not be able to ask for evidence that people registering to vote are citizens. And the only motive that I know of for that is to want non-citizens to be able to vote,” Horne said.

In its lawsuit, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund argued that Prop. 200 places too many burdens on legitimate voters and has led to citizens’ voter registrations being rejected.

Horne said testimony and evidence from the Prop. 200 lawsuit proved his point, and noted that the evidence resulted in 10 prosecutions. But while that evidence showed noncitizens who had registered and even some who had voted in numerous elections, none were specifically identified as illegal immigrants.

In a 2008 deposition, Osborne recalled one legal immigrant who told county election officials that she had been told she was allowed to register to vote, and subsequently voted in a school election. She was prosecuted. In a deposition two years later, Osborne said paid circulators working for voter registration drives sometimes tell legal immigrants that they are allowed to register.

Horne presented five 1999 letters from Pima County election officials about legal immigrants, several of whom contacted the county and asked that their registration be cancelled. A 2007 list shows 168 noncitizens had their voter registrations cancelled in Maricopa County, including 42 who had voted in elections since 2000. Horne noted that the document does not indicate their immigration status.

Other fraud occurs when people vote in multiple states. Bennett and Horne jointly announced an indictment in February against a man who was accused of casting ballots in both Arizona and Colorado, and a Scottsdale couple was indicted a month later for allegedly voting in Arizona and Nevada. The indictments were the result of a 16-state partnership created to compare voter rolls and purge inaccurate data from people who have moved.

Earlier in Yuma County, another investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office showed some evidence of improprieties in the March 2010 municipal elections. Bjelland said the county rejected about 10 percent of the early ballots it received, an abnormally high number compared to the 1 percent that election officials in Maricopa County saw at the time. But the County Attorney’s Office said it didn’t have the means to prosecute the case, Bjelland said.

There is disagreement among county recorders on whether Prop. 200 was even necessary. Some, such as Cochise County Recorder Christine Rhodes, said there were never enough instances of election fraud to justify the law. “It was based on the stories that there was voter fraud, and I don’t believe in Arizona that we’ve had voter fraud to any extent,” Rhodes said.

But others say it’s a good law, even if the fraud it aims to stop is minimal. La Paz County Recorder Shelly Baker said she’s unaware of any attempts to register or vote by illegal immigrants in the six years she’s been in office, but the law is worth having in place as a preventative measure, if nothing else.

“I think it’s probably prevented it, in my view. I don’t have any proof of that,” Baker said.

Even some illegal immigration hardliners say Arizona doesn’t have much of a problem with illegal immigrants trying to vote.

“I don’t believe that there’s widespread voting by illegal aliens in our elections,” said Rep. Jack Harper,

R-Surprise. “I think those that are in the country illegally know they could be caught by voting illegally or just by registering to vote.”

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said it’s hard to say how much election fraud exists in Arizona. But even if there is very little, Prop. 200 is still a valuable deterrent, he said.

“If one person fraudulently votes opposite of what I voted, then that person has canceled out my vote and it’s a real big problem,” he said. “You have to protect the integrity of your electoral system because that’s the foundation that government legitimacy rests upon.”