Voting Eligibility Rules for Immigrants

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Naturalization typically increases as national elections draw closer, as more immigrants want to participate in the democratic process. This is especially true if immigration issues become important to the campaigns, as in 2016 when Donald Trump proposed building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and putting sanctions on Muslim immigrants.

Naturalization applications decreased from 986,851 in 2017 to 810,548 in 2018, a drop of about 18%, the most recent year for which figures are available from the Department of Homeland Security. The agency estimates that the number of applications stayed at roughly the same level between 2018 and 2019.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 23 million naturalized citizens will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election—roughly one in 10 registered voters—and nearly double the number who were eligible to vote in 2000.

An increase in naturalized citizen voters is likely good news for Democrats who have relied on immigrant support in recent national elections. Worse for Republicans, polls showed that eight out of 10 Hispanic voters had a negative opinion about Trump.

Who Can Vote in the United States?

Simply put, only U.S. citizens can vote in the United States. Immigrants who are naturalized U.S. citizens can vote, and they have exactly the same voting privileges as natural-born U.S. citizens. There is no difference.

The basic qualifications for voting eligibility:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen. Green card holders, or permanent residents, are not allowed to vote in national elections. A few localities allow green card holders to vote in municipal elections. But otherwise, as an immigrant, to participate in state and national elections, you must have completed the naturalization process and earned U.S. citizenship.
  • You must be a resident of the state where you’re intending to vote for a minimum period of time. It’s usually 15–30 days, but this does vary from some states to others.  Check with your local elections officials.
  • You must be at least 18 years old on or before Election Day. A few states permit 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election. Check with your local elections officials.
  • You must not have a felony conviction that disqualifies you from voting. If you have been convicted of a serious crime, you must get your civil rights restored to vote, which is not an easy process.
  • You must not have been declared “mentally incompetent” by a court of law.

Immigrants who are not naturalized U.S. citizens face serious criminal penalties if they try to vote in an election illegally. They risk a fine, imprisonment, or deportation. Also, it is important that your naturalization process is completed before you try to vote. You must have taken the oath and formally become a U.S. citizen before you can legally vote and participate fully in American democracy.

Voting Registration Rules Vary by State

The Constitution allows the states wide discretion to set voting registration and election rules. This means that registering to vote in New Hampshire can have different requirements than registering to vote in Wyoming or Florida or Missouri. And the dates of local and state elections also vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

For example, the forms of identification that are acceptable in one state may not be in others. It’s very important to find out what the rules are in your state of residence. One way to do this is to visit your local state elections office. Another way is to go online. Nearly all states have websites where updated voting information is readily accessible.

Where to Find Information on Voting

A good place to find out your state’s rules for voting is the Election Assistance Commission. The EAC website has a state-by-state breakdown of voting dates, registration procedures, and election rules.

The EAC maintains a National Mail Voter Registration Form that includes voter registration rules and regulations for all the states and territories. It can be a valuable tool for immigrant citizens who are trying to learn how to participate in U.S. democracy. It is possible to use the form to register to vote or to change your voting information.

In most states, it’s possible to complete the National Mail Voter Registration Form and simply print it, sign it, and mail it to the address listed under your state in the State Instructions. You can also use this form to update your name or address or to register with a political party.

However, once again, states have different rules and not all states and U.S. territories accept the National Mail Voter Registration Form, a list that includes North Dakota, Wyoming, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. New Hampshire accepts it only as a request for an absentee voter mail-in registration form.

For an excellent overview of voting and elections across the country, the USA.gov website offers a wealth of information about the democratic process.

Where to Register to Vote

You may be able to sign up to vote in person at the public places listed below. But again, remember that what applies in one state may not apply in another:

  • The state or local voter registration or elections office, sometimes known as the elections supervisor’s office.
  • The department of motor vehicles.
  • Certain public assistance agencies. Some states use the social services network to promote voter registration.
  • Armed services recruitment centers. A military recruiter may be able to help you sign up to vote.
  • State-run programs that help people with disabilities.
  • Any public entity that a state has designated as a voter registration center. Do some research to find out if there’s a government facility near you that might be able to help.

Taking Advantage of Absentee or Early Voting

In recent years, many states have done more to make it easier for voters to participate through early voting days and absentee ballots. Some voters may find it impossible to make to the polls on Election Day. For example, that could be out of the country or hospitalized.

Registered voters from every state can request an absentee ballot that can be returned by mail. Some states require that you give them a specific reason why you are unable to go to the polls. Other states have no such requirement. Check with your local officials.

All states will mail an absentee ballot to eligible voters who request one. The voter may then return the completed ballot by mail or in person. In a third of the states, an excuse is required, while two-thirds of states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without giving one. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list: once a voter asks to be added to the list, the voter will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.

Colorado, Oregon, and Washington use all-mail voting. Every eligible voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail. Those ballots can be returned in person or by mail when a voter completes them.

Four-fifths of the states offer some sort of early voting opportunity. You can cast your ballot days before Election Day at various locations. Check with your local election office to find out what early voting opportunities are available where you live.

Check for Voter ID Laws in Your State

A total of 36 states had passed laws requiring or requesting that voters show some form of identification at the polls, usually a photo ID. The remaining 14 states use other methods to verify the identity of voters. Again, this varies from state to state. Most frequently, other identifying information a voter provides at the polling place, such as a signature, is checked against information on file.

In general, states with Republican governors and legislatures have pushed for photo IDs, claiming a higher standard of identity verification is needed to prevent fraud. Democrats have opposed photo ID laws, arguing the voting fraud is virtually non-existent in the United States and the ID requirements are a hardship for the elderly and poor. Former President Barak Obama opposed the requirements.

A study by researchers at Arizona State University found convictions or guilty pleas in 33 cases of voter fraud cases since 2000.  Of those, 24% involved absentee ballot fraud. Democrats argue that if Republicans were really serious about cracking down on the rare cases of fraud that have occurred, they would do something about absentee voting where the likelihood of misconduct is far greater.

In 1950, South Carolina became the first state to require identification from voters at the polls. Hawaii started requiring IDs in 1970 and Texas followed a year later. Florida joined the movement in 1977, and gradually dozens of states fell in line.

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law. It required all first-time voters in federal elections to show a photo or non-photo ID upon either registration or arrival at the polling place.

A Brief History of Immigrant Voting in the US

Most Americans don’t realize that immigrants—foreigners or noncitizens—were commonly allowed to vote in elections during the Colonial era. At least 22 states or territories, including the original 13 colonies leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, have allowed foreigners voting rights for at least some elections.

Noncitizen voting was widespread in the United States for the first 150 years of its history. During the Civil War, Southern states turned against allowing voting rights to immigrants because of their opposition to slavery and support for the North. In 1874, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that residents in Missouri, who were foreign-born but had committed to becoming U.S. citizens, should be allowed to vote.

But a generation later, public sentiment had swung against immigrants. The growing waves of new arrivals from Europe—Ireland, Italy, and Germany in particular—brought a backlash against giving rights to noncitizens and accelerating their assimilation into U.S. society. In 1901, Alabama stopped allowing foreign-born residents to vote. Colorado followed a year later, and then Wisconsin in 1902 and Oregon in 1914.

By World War I, more and more native-born residents opposed allowing newly arrived immigrants to participate in U.S. democracy. In 1918, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota all changed their constitutions to deny noncitizens voting rights, and Indiana, Mississippi, and Texas followed. Arkansas became the last state to ban voting rights for foreigners in 1926.

Since then, the way into the voting booth for immigrants is through naturalization.

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