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Suspected voter registration fraud prompts request for Board of Elections policy

Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns wants the Erie County Board of Elections to establish a formal policy that would allow the Clerk's Office to report – and the Board of Elections to investigate – instances where non-U.S. citizens illegally register as they apply for driver's licenses.

The state's new Green Light Law gives immigrants living here illegally a path to obtaining a standard driver's license. But because of the ease with which people can register to vote under the Motor Voter Law, Kearns and other county clerks who opposed granting licenses to unauthorized immigrants say the Green Light Law will open up the door to voter fraud.

"We’re requesting that a procedure be developed by the Board of Elections which would review new voter applications to confirm that only those who are legally entitled to vote are registered and entered in the system," Kearns said Monday.

Meeting Kearns' request will be hard, said Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr. The only way for the board to investigate whether a person illegally registered to vote is to check with federal immigration authorities. But passing on identifying information regarding an unauthorized immigrant is forbidden under the Green Light Law.

"I think we need to sit down with our county attorney and figure out what we’re going to do," Mohr said.

Immigrants who are not citizens have never been allowed to vote. But anyone who applies for a driver's license can either deliberately or accidentally press a button on an electronic screen claiming to be a citizen and be granted voting rights. County staff who process motor vehicle transactions are not allowed under the Motor Voter Law to interfere with the voter registration process.

The Green Light Law restricts how the clerk's staff can process driver's license transactions.

Kearns said the issue was highlighted last week when a legal immigrant applied for a commercial driver's license in Erie County's downtown auto bureau and registered to vote. The man had a valid work visa but is not an American citizen.

The Erie County Clerk's Office did not interfere with the man's ability to test for the commercial driver's license, nor did staff prevent him from signing up to vote, which is an electronic touch-screen process. The employee handling the case flagged it for Kearns' review.

"It happened on Tuesday, and by Friday they were on the voting books," Kearns said. "There are no checks and balances in Albany."

In his letter to the Board of Elections, Kearns provided details about the transaction but included no personally identifiable information about the applicant.

He asked that the board certify that it would not share the information with federal immigration enforcement authorities in order for him to release more information about the individual's identity. Mohr responded that the board has no way to investigate Kearns' complaint if the board cannot contact federal immigration authorities to confirm his citizenship.

Democratic Elections Commissioner Jeremy Zellner pointed out that the instance Kearns highlighted has nothing to do with the Green Light Law and that the Board of Elections already has a way to investigate potential voter registration fraud.

But if the individual in question is not a legal resident, Mohr said he does not yet see any legal way for the Board of Elections to protect against the possibility of this kind of voter fraud.

The Green Light Law allows immigrants living here illegally to apply for a standard, non-commercial license if they have sufficient foreign documentation. The law also forbids DMV and other auto bureau employees from asking about an applicant's citizenship or lawful presence.

State officials say that under the Motor Voter Law, those who falsely state they are eligible to vote could be jailed for up a four years and fined up to $5,000. The law bars DMV agents to repeat those warnings to anyone they may have profiled as being ineligible to vote because it is illegal to take any action seen as suppressing voter rights.

The state's Motor Voter Law remains unchanged by the Green Light Law, state officials say.

In Erie County, only a handful of such instances come to Mohr's attention each year, and those instances are the result of an unauthorized immigrant being nabbed by immigration and border enforcement personnel who find the individual's voter registration card, he said.

Mohr and Zellner said they will need to further discuss how to handle cases of improper voter registration.

"We’re certainly cognizant that we have do something before the next election," Mohr said.

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