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Niagara County will challenge 'Green Light Law,' fearing illegal voting

The Niagara County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to file a lawsuit to overturn the state's new "Green Light Law" because lawmakers said allowing immigrants who enter the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses could enable them to vote in elections.

The five-page resolution, written by County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, presents a detailed legal argument for the law's unconstitutionality.

The Legislature has an 11-4 Republican majority, but the Democrats went along with Joerg's argument, too.

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said he voted yes "on the advice of the county attorney. He made a half-hour speech about it."

Niagara County will join Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola in filing suits to overturn the law that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed June 17.

Kearns argues that the law usurps the federal government's sole authority to make immigration law and that it contradicts federal law by in effect instructing county clerks to shield immigrants living illegally in the U.S. from detection by immigration authorities. The Green Light Law orders clerks to inform holders of driver's licenses if federal immigration authorities seek their license information.

People wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Lockport, before DMVs shut down due to Covid-19. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

But Joerg's argument emphasizes the possibility that such immigrants might use their driver's licenses as a way of registering to vote. The state constitution says that only U.S. citizens are allowed to vote.

In an interview with The Buffalo News last week, Anu Joshi, senior director of immigration rights policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, derided Kearns' lawsuit.

"We have full confidence that this lawsuit, that was clearly motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, will be quickly dismissed by the court and that it has no legal standing," Joshi said.

"It has nothing to do with being against immigration and everything to do with giving privileges to people who are in our country illegally," Niagara County Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski said. "We take an oath to uphold the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of New York. Which do we choose?"

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the "motor voter law," requires all states to make voter registration available on driver's license forms, but other federal laws specify that it's illegal for noncitizens to vote for any federal office.

The resolution Niagara County passed said that the Green Light Law provides no mechanism for preventing immigrants who are not citizens from registering to vote at the time of applying for a driver's license.

The resolution also instructs the county Board of Elections to prevent immigrants who are in the country illegally from voting, but Joerg admitted Wednesday he doesn't know how that can be done.

"I hope they have more ingenuity than I have," Joerg said. "I can't come up with a way for them to carry out their constitutional duty to prevent noncitizens from voting."

The Green Light Law bars boards of elections from seeing the foreign identification materials the law requires county clerks to rely on in granting driver's licenses, said Legislature Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda.

"I believe that Gov. Cuomo and his supporters have gone far beyond their rights as state representatives, by failing to properly assess the Green Light Law and its ramifications to the voting process," said Legislator Rebecca J. Wydysh, R-Lewiston. "Our hope with this litigation is to stop the process before it begins and maintain the sanctity of our country’s voting process."

Joerg said he intends to work with John Ciampoli, an Albany attorney who has specialized in election law litigation on behalf of Republicans, in drawing up a lawsuit to be filed sometime in the next several weeks.

"There's some things in that law that don't make sense," Virtuoso said. "The law needs to be redone."

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