TV Ad Distorts Facts on Federal Voting Rights Bill

A TV ad from a conservative group distorts the facts about the “For the People Act,” a voting rights bill approved by the Democratic-controlled House and now in the Senate.

The ad, paid for by Restoration Action, says: “No more voter ID. Signature verification on absentee ballots virtually eliminated. And effectively allowing noncitizens to vote.” The first claim is false and the last two are misleading.

House Democrats passed H.R. 1 — known as the “For the People Act” — on March 3, and it is now being debated in the Senate.

The bill has been criticized by Republican leaders who say the bill would override state laws governing federal elections and increase the chances of fraud. “This legislation would forcibly rewrite the election laws of all 50 states from here in Washington,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a March 24 hearing on the bill. 

In addition to making it easier to vote, the legislation also would make changes in federal campaign finance laws and state redistricting rules.

Voter ID Option

The TV ad urges its viewers to call Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and tell the Democratic senators to vote against S. 1, the Senate version of the House bill. The ad is also running on Facebook, along with versions that target Democratic senators in New Hampshire and Nevada.

It claims that under the Democratic bill there would be “no more voter ID.” But, as we have written before, that’s not accurate.

Thirty-six states have voter ID laws and the rules vary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A voter in Washington needs only to present a school or work ID card to vote, while Tennessee voters must show a government-issued ID.

The House and Senate bills would allow those who don’t have proper identification to present a statement “signed by the individual under penalty of perjury, attesting to the individual’s identity and attesting that the individual is eligible to vote in the election.” This option would apply only for federal elections, not state or local elections.

When asked about that claim, Restoration Action spokesman Dan Curry provided us supporting material that said the legislation “would eliminate any requirements for voter[s] to prove identification when voting.” That’s just wrong.

The bill doesn’t eliminate state voter ID laws. Rather, it introduces another option for some voters in states that have voter ID laws.

Restoration Action’s backup material also says the bill “would circumvent any proof of identification requirement for voting by allowing voters to simply sign affidavits instead of proving their identity.” But it’s not that simple.

“There would be consequences for lying” in a sworn affidavit, Daniel Weiner, deputy director of Election Reform at the Brennan Center for Justice, told us. “The idea that voters would casually lie is utterly baseless and not true.”

Signature Verification Requirements

The ad also misleadingly claims that “signature verification on absentee ballots [would be] virtually eliminated.” As the narrator says those words, the ad shows a signature disappearing from an absentee ballot.

Restoration Action’s backup material for the ad says the legislation “would only allow signature verification to be used if a state met the requirements set forth in the bill” — leaving “states the option to not verify absentee/mail ballots with a signature.”

The legislation says that states “may not impose a signature verification” requirement unless they meet the “due process requirements” of the bill. Restoration Action finds the due process requirements will weaken state laws, specifically singling out these provisions of the bill, according to the group’s supporting material:

  • At least two election officials trained in signature verification must agree that “a discrepancy exists between the signature on an absentee ballot and the signature of the individual who submits the ballot on the official list of registered voters.”
  • If such a discrepancy exists, the state must “make a good faith effort to immediately notify the individual by mail, telephone, and (if available) text message and electronic mail.”
  • The voter whose signature is challenged can provide “information to cure such discrepancy, either in person, by telephone, or by electronic methods.”

We’ll leave it to readers to decide if these requirements would weaken state laws or, conversely, strengthen protections for voters. But none of them would eliminate or even “virtually” eliminate signature verification.

One thing the bill does eliminate is the need for witness signatures.

There are 11 states that require absentee ballots to either be notarized or signed by a witness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill would ban states from requiring notarization or witness signatures requirements for mail-in ballots in federal elections.

Voters typically have to sign absentee ballot application forms, return envelopes or affidavits (under penalty of perjury) when voting by mail. Voters would still have to provide a signature for verification purposes, but not a witness signature and not a notarized application or ballot.

Noncitizens Cannot Vote

Lastly, the ad misleadingly claims the Senate bill would “effectively” allow “noncitizens to vote.” The bill doesn’t allow noncitizens to vote; it doesn’t change the U.S. Constitution, which gives only citizens who are 18 years of age or older the right to vote.

In fact, the Senate bill says “the right to vote is a fundamental right of citizens of the United States,” citing the 26th Amendment of the Constitution.

But Restoration Action and Republican leaders — including former Vice President Mike Pence — have made the argument that the Democratic legislation would result in noncitizens being able to illegally vote. Specifically, they cite a section of the bill that requires states to automatically register eligible voters, unless they opt out.

The House and Senate bills both define “automatic registration” as “electronically transferring the information necessary for registration from government agencies to election officials of the State so that, unless the individual affirmatively declines to be registered, the individual will be registered to vote in such elections.”

Automatic registration is nothing new. Oregon was the first state to introduce automatic voter registration, or AVR.

“In what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oregon model,’ an eligible voter who interacts with the DMV is not asked whether they would like to register to vote, but instead is automatically opted into registering,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which says 20 states and the District of Columbia now have AVR.

The NCSL said AVR is an outgrowth of the so-called “motor-voter” act — formally known as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Since that law passed, “the most common source of registration applications” has been state motor vehicle agencies, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In 2016, when Republican Donald Trump was elected president, about 33% of all voter registration applications, approximately 25 million, came via a motor vehicle agency, the commission said.

States have procedures in place to make sure that noncitizens aren’t automatically registered to vote, but occasionally mistakes occur.

As we have written before, the California Secretary of State’s office in late 2018 disclosed that roughly 1,500 people — including noncitizens — were erroneously registered to vote through the state’s motor-voter program. We were told at the time that those registrations were cancelled, but in the summer of 2019 the state announced that six people who were erroneously registered “due to DMV errors” voted in the 2018 elections.

“Data from the Secretary of State’s Office shows nearly 20 million ballots were cast in the 2018 primary and general election,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “Six votes would not have been enough to affect the outcome of a single race.”

Weiner, of the Brennan Center for Justice, described the problem in California as a “glitch.”

“These sorts of problems are being more effectively dealt with” as states get more experience with automatic registration systems, Weiner told us. “AVR, if anything, makes [voter registration] more accurate.”

And, as we have also reported, there is no evidence of widespread illegal voting — particularly by noncitizens, who risk deportation if they are caught.

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