Posted on August 18, 2004

Md. Elections Officials Vow To Purge Noncitizen Voters, Aug. 13

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland elections officials, alerted this week that a greater number of people who aren’t American citizens may be voting than previously thought, ordered their staff to find ways to purge the rolls of illegal voters.

“There appears to be a resignation that noncitizens are indeed on the list. That’s not acceptable,” said Gilles Burger, chairman of the state Board of Elections. “We want to remove all names of people not eligible to vote.”

Burger and fellow board members said they were surprised to learn, from staffers and local elections supervisors at a meeting Tuesday, that Maryland doesn’t have a systematic way to make sure new voters are citizens.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the Motor-Voter law, requires that everyone who applies for a driver’s license be given a chance to register to vote. The paperwork warns that noncitizens who register to vote can be prosecuted, but the act provides no method for elections workers to make sure new voters have citizenship status, elections officials and experts say.

State board members brought up the issue at their regular meeting this week. State Delegate Donald Dwyer of Anne Arundel County, one of the state’s most conservative Republican lawmakers, wrote to the board last month and voiced concerns that registration rolls are filled with noncitizens. He met with board staffers last month to press the issue.

“They have to have the ability to audit and purge the rolls of ineligible voters,” Dwyer said in an interview this week.

Dwyer has tried, but failed, to pass legislation requiring immigrants to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote.

Burger said he was “shocked” to learn that the rolls include noncitizens, although it’s something local elections supervisors acknowledge and say is difficult to prevent. They say there’s no way to know how many immigrants may be voting illegally.

“We take for granted,” that new voters are truthful when they say they are U.S. citizens, Burger said. “We don’t really have a way of validating that. We need to do that. We need to regularly scrub our list, and we need to keep noncitizens from coming onto the list.”

The state elections office is working now to secure a statewide database of Maryland’s 3 million registered voters. While the database won’t guarantee that voters are legal, it will allow elections officials to maintain the rolls more easily, Burger said.

In addition, state elections officials should work more closely with the Social Security Administration to find a way of guaranteeing that voters are citizens, he said. But the SSA also doesn’t have a comprehensive list of who in the United States has citizenship status, said Mary Cramer Wagner, director of voter registration at the Maryland Board of Elections.

“What is the mechanism?” that will allow state workers to verify citizenship, Wagner asked. “How do you know? That is something that I’m just getting ready to scratch the surface.”

Elections workers do have ways to “tweak” the rolls, Wagner said. When people resist jury duty because they are not U.S. citizens, elections officials are alerted to make sure they are not registered to vote. Local elections boards also check their rolls against lists in other counties, to make sure no one is registered to vote in more than one district, Wagner said.

But the task of checking voters’ citizenship status is a sticky one, she says, and raises questions of how to go about it without conducting racial profiling.

Kim Propeack, an immigrant advocate who works for CASA Maryland and sought to defeat Dwyer’s legislation, said elections officials are worrying about a problem “that doesn’t exist.”

“I know hundreds of Maryland residents who are not yet citizens, and none of them have ever registered to vote,” she said. “They know they’re not supposed to vote, and they don’t vote.”

Propeack says that by purging the rolls, state elections officials could get themselves into the same kind of trouble that arose in Florida this year, when news surfaced that thousands of former felons were on a list of voters to be purged even though their voting rights had been restored. Most were Democrats, and many were black.

The issue arose in Maryland in June, when Howard County court officials learned a juror who helped convict a man of murder was not a U.S. citizen. The verdict was upheld, but the case brought to light what Dwyer says is a serious problem — that Maryland has no way of verifying if voters or jurors are citizens.