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Editorial: Protect the ballot

The state’s new Green Light Law is nothing if not controversial. The measure, which allows residents living illegally in New York to receive a standard driver’s license, was approved last year and took effect in December.

But what should not be controversial are efforts to ensure that those applicants do not also – inadvertently or not – register to vote. That’s a problem that Erie County Clerk Michael “Mickey” Kearns appropriately flagged to the county’s elections commissioners who, in turn, are taking steps to ensure that only American citizens are registering to vote.

Here’s the guiding principle for any democracy: It should want to encourage the maximum turnout of voters in every election, and to ensure that only citizens are in a position to cast their ballots. That’s a fundamental component of a democracy that hopes to thrive.

The issue that has arisen in New York is how the Green Light Law may become entangled in the state’s Motor Voter law. Under that legislation, anyone who applies for a driver’s license can also complete a voter registration application if, in the electronic transaction, they indicate they are U.S. citizens.

While there is no indication that anyone here illegally has tried to register as a voter, Kearns reported that a related problem arose in December. An immigrant who is here legally applied for a commercial driver’s license and then registered to vote.

While that problem could just as easily have arisen without the existence of the Green Light Law, the incident counts as a red flag, nonetheless. An employee at the Clerk’s Office alerted Kearns to the improper application and he asked officials of the county Board of Elections to develop a policy to address such circumstances.

To their credit, the elections commissioners moved quickly to deal with the defect. Now, instead of routinely processing voter registrations forwarded from the county clerk’s office, the county Board of Elections will enforce a five-day delay.

That should give the Clerk’s Office time to flag any applications that may arouse suspicions. When that happens, the Board of Elections will send a letter to the applicant requesting additional proof of citizenship.

It’s an interim approach, and as Kearns – an opponent of the Green Light Law – observed, a reasonable one. For the long-term, the Elections Board is hoping for guidance from the courts and the state Board of Elections on how to ensure that people making use of the Green Light Law don’t also end up on the voting rolls. The Motor Voter law, itself, may need to be amended.

Providing driver's licenses to those here illegally is one thing. Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about that policy, but it should be possible to protect the vote. A similar police on driver’s licenses was in effect until then-Gov. George E. Pataki halted it in 2011. In any case, it needs to be done.

Voting is for citizens.

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