Whenever border debates became contentious, I remind myself of a saying ??? a cliché perhaps, but a good one ??? from an old friend. ???We don???t need fewer immigrants,??? he would say. ???We need more Americans.??? This view ??? one that welcomes immigrants and their culture, but encourages them to assimilate ??? faces two different threats these days.
The first is obvious. It is the ugly nativism displayed by a certain GOP presidential candidate adept at exploiting grievances. But there???s another, less-discussed danger. Some politicians, in Democratic hothouses such as Sacramento, try to erase some meaningful distinctions between citizens and noncitizens. That turns the nation???s motto (E pluribus unum) on its head ??? from ???out of many, one??? to ???out of one, many.???
We see regular bills to this effect, including one vetoed in 2013 that would have given noncitizens the right to serve on juries. One of the most controversial ones is now on the governor???s desk. AB 1461, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, isn???t ostensibly about immigration. It???s about voter registration, but its amended version could have far-reaching consequences on immigration matters.
The legislation, which passed on a party-line vote, would automatically register to vote all people who have California driver???s licenses or state identification cards unless they specifically opt out. The goal is to boost voter participation. ???We???ve seen turnout plummet in recent years as our voting system has fallen behind the times, but the New Motor Voter Act allows us the opportunity to streamline and modernize the registration process for millions of eligible voters who haven???t been a part of our voting system,??? said Gonzalez, in a statement.
That voter-participation argument seems weak. It???s not hard to register to vote now. People unwilling to take the modest steps necessary to register and vote might not be the best-informed voters. Some of the least-free nations have the highest participation rates. In Iraq???s 2002 referendum, 100 percent of the population voted ??? and Saddam Hussein received 100 percent of the vote. This is facetious, but the goal shouldn???t be more voters per se, but more active participants in the process.
There???s more here than a debate about voter turnout. The Election Integrity Project, a national group concerned about voter fraud, argues AB 1461 ???will allow noncitizens to be registered to vote and then to vote without fear of prosecution.??? The Assembly???s own analysis suggests this is not hyperbole.
The problem is California has issued driver???s licenses to unauthorized immigrants. That seems reasonable given that it makes it easier to track and ensure compliance with insurance laws by people who are here and driving any way. But if the driver???s license becomes the means by which one is registered to vote, it becomes complicated. Instead of coming up with a system to weed out the voter-eligible drivers from the non-eligible ones, the bill seems to ensure the state cannot easily make those distinctions.
For instance, Senate amendments delete the provisions of the bill that would have forced the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide the secretary of state with information about the document the person provided ???to prove that his or her presence in the United States is authorized under federal law and that the applicant is a citizen of the United States.??? The secretary of state will determine eligibility, but the bill makes it difficult to do so.
Furthermore, the bill provides ???that if a person who is ineligible to vote becomes registered??? (and) attempts to vote in an election??? the person is presumed to have acted with official authorization and shall not be guilty of fraudulently voting??? unless the person willfully votes or attempts to vote knowing that he or she is not entitled to vote.??? Gonzalez???s office insists the bill imposes new safeguards that are tougher than the ones in law today, but critics aren???t buying that explanation.
I???m not someone who waxes poetic about the ???temple of democracy,??? but anything that so obviously blurs the voting lines between citizen and noncitizen will only make it less important to be an American.