SALEM — With concerns that are based on fear, rather than proof, that voter fraud exists in Oregon, a conservative duo is proposing a solution: put a clause in the state constitution that requires all voters to prove they’re U.S. citizens before they can vote.
Two Republicans have already filed a proposed constitutional amendment well ahead of the 2018 election that would require each of the state’s 2.5 million voters to register again within two years, this time proving to the state they are eligible U.S. citizens using approved government documents.
That way, says Mike Nearman, a Republican representative from Polk County, there’s proof that only eligible citizens are voting.
“I’ve heard rumors of what went on in House District 22, which is Woodburn and north Salem, that there was heavy recruiting and voter registration drives among populations of Latinos that are likely to have a lot of illegal aliens,” Nearman said last week in a phone interview. “I don’t have my doubts that it is going on at least at some level.”
Woodburn, in the Willamette Valley, is majority Hispanic or Latino, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We have online registration that has the little check box that says I am a U.S. citizen. That’s all there is,” Nearman said. “If I’m a citizen of Germany or Switzerland I can just go check that box and do that.”
The policy, which hasn’t gained popularity in Oregon politics, is picking up some steam nationally following the presidential election, despite being viewed as voter suppression by civil liberties groups.
After Republican Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the election, there have been unfounded accusations of large-scale voter fraud. Trump fueled the fire by alleging on Twitter he didn’t actually lose the popular vote by over 2.4 million votes. Instead, he said, without citing any evidence, he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Kris Kobach, a Republican and Kansas secretary of state, is considered a prominent supporter of the concept Nearman is pitching for Oregon. Kobach has been an ardent defender of a law that seeks to require Kansans to prove their citizenship before registering to vote.
A federal court this year struck down the Kansas proof of citizenship law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 against a similar law in Arizona, saying the National Voter Registration Act, also called Motor Voter, which allows voters to register without proving citizenship, pre-empted the state laws.
“We know this kind of requirement stopped tens of thousands of people from registering in Kansas,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project from the American Civil Liberties Union. “People aren’t interested in having an intellectually honest debate about it because there’s no evidence to back up their assertions about widespread registration of noncitizens.”
Kobach may have plans to address the court ruling, and as a member of Trump’s transition team, he has the ear of the incoming president.
A photo taken by an Associated Press photographer as Kobach met with Trump on Nov. 21 showed a document Kobach was holding that included plans for Trump’s first year as president. Much of the document was obscured by Kobach’s hand and arm but includes a reference to voting:
“Draft Amendments to National Voter—” the rest of the sentence is covered by Kobach’s arm, but elections experts believe it refers to the National Voter Registration Act, the federal law that allows voters to register by attesting to their citizenship.
Kobach didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Here’s the bottom line: courts have ruled that the current version of the (Motor Voter Act) pre-empts a proof-of-citizenship requirement and that trying to have a separate registration system for state elections is unlawful,” said Josh Douglas, associate professor of law at the University of Kentucky College of Law.
If Kobach wanted proof-of-citizenship laws to be implemented on a wider scale, he could suggest amending the Motor Voter Act to put in place a national requirement for prospective voters to prove citizenship before voting, or allow states to enact their own laws with that requirement, Ho said.
Under Nearman’s proposal for Oregon, everyone seeking to participate in elections would have to register using a U.S. passport, certificate of naturalization from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, original or certified birth certificate or other government document.
Some Republicans have sought that level of proof for registering to vote in Oregon long before Nearman became chief petitioner of the proposed amendment.
Some Republicans in the state House and Senate have pitched the idea every session since at least 2005. The closest it’s come to the governor’s desk is when it passed the Republican-controlled House in 2005 before dying in the Senate.
Nearman didn’t say there was proof that voters in House District 22 illegally registered to vote — a felony in Oregon. The Bulletin also spoke with Jaime Arredondo, director of Accion Politica PCUNista, a group that organizes Latino voters, who helped run a voter registration drive in the district.
“Our groups have been doing voter registration in this area for over 20 years,” Arredondo said. “We cover every step of the way, checking on citizenship, on age and so-forth. Our folks know when they go out there what their requirements are to do that.”
Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, a Democrat tapped in 2015 to replace Kate Brown when she became governor, said in an interview Friday there hadn’t been accusations of voter fraud in Oregon this year. She said she heard of one ineligible voter who registered but later contacted the county clerk and unregistered.
“It’s not that we couldn’t investigate a complaint. We could, if people actually had evidence of voter registration drives where people were being encouraged to ignore the legal responsibility involved or downplay it or anything like that,” Atkins said. “Evidence of that happening would be something that we would probably in partnership with the Department of Justice go after pretty severely.”
Still, without a law requiring voters to take the step to show the state or county clerks that they’re in the country legally, of age and not a felon serving an ongoing sentence, those pushing for a law that would require that level of proof maintain that Oregon’s elections are vulnerable to fraud.
“I think it’s not just 2016; I think it’s been happening for a long time,” said James Buchal, a Portland attorney and co-chief petitioner of the 2018 initiative who also ran for attorney general in 2012.
Rather than require the secretary of state’s office or county clerks to take steps to verify that residents on the voter rolls weren’t registered illegally, Buchal and Nearman’s measure would require each of the 2.5 million — and rapidly climbing — voters in Oregon to register again, this time proving citizenship with an approved government ID.
Buchal thinks that may hurt their case if the two collect the 117,578 needed signatures and move forward with a campaign in the 2018 election.
“People are lazy,” Buchal said. “If they find out they would have to re-register, they might not like that.”