Trump allies push bill to bar non-citizen voting, even though it’s already illegal

<span>Mike Johnson introducing the Save act at the US Capitol on 8 May 2024 in Washington DC.</span><span>Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images</span>
Mike Johnson introducing the Save act at the US Capitol on 8 May 2024 in Washington DC.Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Dozens of Donald Trump’s allies and election denialists, including extremists like lawyer Cleta Mitchell and ex-adviser Stephen Miller, are promoting a bill to bar non-citizens from voting in federal elections, even though it’s already illegal and evidence that non-citizens have voted in federal races is almost nil.

The push for the bill is seen as further evidence of extremist tactics used by ex-president Trump and his Maga movement to rev up his base of supporters for the 2024 election with outlandish claims designed to scare-monger over election fraud and far-right rhetoric detached from reality.

It also fits a pattern, that many Trump allies appear to be laying the groundwork for false complaints of election fraud should Trump suffer electoral defeat again in 2024 – raising fears that the US could see a civic crisis similar to what followed the 2020 contest when his allies attacked the Capitol in Washington DC.

The legislation’s rationale, which Trump touted at a Mar-a-Lago event with House speaker Mike Johnson last month, has drawn sharp criticism from voting experts and even some Republicans.

At the bill’s formal unveiling on 8 May, Johnson was joined by Mitchell, Miller and leaders of rightwing groups such as the Tea Party Patriots and the Arizona Freedom Caucus, who have formed the Only Citizens Vote Coalition, which boasts some 70 members pushing the measure.

Johnson hyped the Save act – or Safeguard American Voter Eligibility act – framing illegal citizen voting as a more serious threat than Trump’s false charges that Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 due to voting fraud.

Johnson – whose 8 May press conference drew the bill’s lead sponsors, the senator Mike Lee of Utah and the representative Chip Roy of Texas – allowed that “we all know, intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections. But it’s not been something that is easily provable.”

A lawyer and key Trump ally, Johnson was a central player in Trump’s baseless drive to overturn his 2020 defeat. Johnson led an amicus brief that more than 100 House GOP members signed backing a Texas lawsuit that tried to block the results in four key states that Biden won.

“Even if you weren’t concerned about the drop boxes and the ballot harvesting and the mail-in ballots and 2020,” Johnson said on 8 May, referring to some of the phony fraud claims Trump and his allies made about Biden’s win, “you definitely should be concerned that illegal aliens might be voting in 2024.”

Actually, studies have shown that non-citizens are extremely unlikely to vote in federal elections, and that the minuscule number who attempt to vote have no impact on the outcome.

One Brennan Center for Justice study that focused on the 2016 election revealed that just 0.0001% of votes across 42 jurisdictions, with a total of 23.5m votes, were suspected to include non-citizens voting, or 30 incidents altogether.

A more recent Arizona study showed that less than 1% of non-citizens try to register to vote, but the large majority of those are believed to be errors, as the Washington Post initially reported.

“These lies about widespread non-citizens voting fuel xenophobic fears and unwarranted doubts about the integrity of our elections. They appear intended to lay the groundwork to baselessly challenge any election results. Americans should be confident that our elections are safe and secure,” said Andrew Garber, an elections counsel at the Brennan Center.

Even some Republican stalwarts say the bill is aimed at spurring more votes for Trump and his allies in Congress by raising the specter of a phony election-fraud issue.

“This is all political,” veteran Republican consultant Charlie Black said. “The people who are promoting it know it is already illegal. But they hope by promoting the issue to convince voters that illegal immigrants are voting. “

Other Republicans concur. “This is a messaging bill,” said former representative Charlie Dent, who noted it’s “already illegal” for non-citizens to vote. “They’re trying to tie this to the border issue. It’s completely campaign-driven by challenging Democrats to vote against it.”

Critics warn that the Save Act, which is seen as unlikely to pass the Senate if the House approves the bill, would make it harder to register people to vote since it would require citizenship proof such as a birth certificate or passport, which many Americans lack.

Federal law now just requires voters to fill out a form swearing they’re a US citizen.

Little wonder that the legislation is fueling hefty support from many well-funded, Trump-allied election-denialist groups and their leaders.

Rightwing lawyer Mitchell, who runs the election-integrity network at the Conservative Partnership Institute where she is a senior legal fellow, has been in the vanguard of promoting conspiracies about non-citizen voting.

Mitchell raised the specter of non citizen voting in February on a conservative Illinois talk radio show where she said: “I absolutely believe this is intentional, and one of the reasons the Biden administration is allowing all these illegals to flood the country. They’re taking them into counties across the country, so that they can get those people registered, they can vote them.”

A little-known group that Mitchell quietly set up last year, dubbed the Fair Elections Fund, which she is president of, is listed as a member of the Only Citizens Vote Coalition.

A longtime election conspiracist, Mitchell was on Trump’s call with Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger on 2 January 2021 when Trump exhorted him to “find” 11,780 votes to overturn Biden’s win there.

Similarly, Stephen Miller, who runs the rightwing litigation outfit America First Legal and served as Trump’s hard-line immigration adviser, has been working zealously to promote fears of illegal voting by non-citizens.

“Democracy in America is under attack,” Miller said at the 8 May press event. Miller decried the “wide-open border and obstruction of any effort to verify the citizenship of who votes in our elections”.

Notwithstanding the dearth of evidence that non-citizen voting is a real threat, Miller has repeated bogus conspiracy theories that Democrats are bringing voters into the US to boost Biden winning in November.

The Maga world’s obsession with non-citizen voting was palpable at a Las Vegas event last month hosted by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who leads the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which drew a number of sheriffs and other elected officials from several states. Mack, an ex-board member of the extremist Oath Keepers, said in April that “election fraud and the border go hand in hand”, a claim that lacks any evidence.

Voting experts are alarmed at the growing efforts of Trump allies to highlight a virtually nonexistent threat and promote legislation that would require voters to show documents to register that millions of Americans don’t have.

“Millions of eligible American citizens lack easy access to a passport or birth certificate, so requiring eligible voters to show either one to register to vote would impose a significant hurdle with no real benefits for election security,” said Garber of the Brennan Center.

Other voting specialists voice similar concerns.

“Instead of taking meaningful action to strengthen our critical election infrastructure, Speaker Johnson is adding fuel to the fire by linking immigration policy to election security,” said Carah Ong Whaley, director of election protection at Issue One, a bipartisan political reform group.

Instead, Whaley urged Johnson and his allies to work in a bipartisan way “to increase federal funding to ensure that officials have the resources they need to guard against growing foreign interference concerns and cybersecurity threats”.

Republican figures also express strong misgivings about what’s driving the bill’s backers.

“Since Trump has surrounded himself with the losing general election narrative about fraud in 2020, he needs to change the narrative,” said Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin. “These types of proposals pushed by his allies are critical to him duping American voters to vote for him again.”