By: TJ Martinell
During recent election cycles, the Washington Department of Licensing, or DOL, received numerous reports of foreign nationals being automatically registered to vote in the state, even in cases where they insisted to DOL they were not legally allowed to vote. Some county election agencies have described it as a “rare” occurrence, but it is currently unknown to what extent this problem occurred.
In 2018, the state Legislature passed House Bill 2595, which automatically registers people to vote when they are issued a driver’s license or renew an existing license. To be automatically registered, the voter must provide a signature image and be offered an opportunity to decline registration. The bill took effect in July 2018.
Emails obtained by The Center Square through a public records request found instances where foreign citizens were registered to vote, in some cases despite them insisting during the licensing process that they were not U.S. citizens. According to the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, or SOS, state law does not allow it to verify citizenship when they receive a voter’s registration.
As early as November 2018, DOL and SOS was receiving complaints of foreign voter registration. A Nov. 7, 2018 email from Vanessa Mathisen, an immigration attorney with World Relief Spokane, stated that “many of our clients are unwittingly getting registered to vote when they get their IDs, apply or receive any state benefits. Sometimes we find out because they get a summons for jury duty. Others we do not discover have been registered until they decide to apply for citizenship.”
The attorney further wrote that “in my discussion with the Spokane Voter Registration office, they said that they were told that it’s not a problem if a non-citizen registers to vote. That is false. It is a problem. I don’t know what’s going on at the DOL counters exactly, but I do know that nearly all of my clients that have been registered to vote do not recall doing so, do not recall whether they were asked if they are a US citizen, and 100% of the time either did not speak English or they did not speak English well enough to understand the questions being posed to them.”
She added: “There is no reason to put anyone in the position of having to defend that they did not make a claim that they potentially cannot prove they didn’t make that imperils their immigration status.”
Making false claims regarding eligibility to vote is a Class C felony and includes a fine of up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison.
In response to her email, DOL Technical Operations Consultant Jace Anderson wrote that the state agency “has policies to provide customers with LEP [limited English proficiency] with options and avenues for communication. Some offices have staff who are certified to provide bilingual services in some languages; the customers can bring family, friends, or assistants to help with interpretation.”
The consultant further wrote that “there is, unfortunately, not much more that can be done about that from the department’s side; if a customer answers the questions confidently and there is no other indication that there is a significant language barrier, it would not be apparent that the customer did not understand the questions they were asked. DOL is continually reviewing and improving its policies and procedures based on compliance with new and existing regulations, business need, and stakeholder consideration. Your concerns are being reviewed to determine if there is anything DOL can do within the bounds of our power to reduce the occurrence of ineligible voter registrations.”
World Relief Spokane did not respond to a request for comment by The Center Square.
That same month, meetings notes for a monthly King County Voter Education Fund, or VEF, check-in with the South Park Information and Resource Center noted that the organization was “concerned that DOL is registering individuals that are not U.S. citizens without explaining to them what the requirements are. How will this be prevented in the future with automatic registration taking effect [?]”
The issue continued into the 2019 election cycle, in which numerous county election agencies raised concerns about foreign voter registration.
Among them was King County Elections Director Julie Wise. In an Oct. 29, 2019 email to VEF recipients, she responded to reports she had heard from them about the problem.
“Let me start by saying that I am also deeply concerned about this,” she wrote. “Every year we hear from a small number of voters who received a ballot because they accidentally got registered while getting a driver’s license or Washington State ID.”
“I have raised this issue with the Department of Licensing in the past and will continue to do so,” she added.
In an email to The Center Square, King County Elections Communications Officer Halei Watkins wrote that “what we’ve seen over the years is a rare occurrence of someone getting accidentally registered through the DOL because of either miscommunication or human error like checking the wrong box. When that happens, the individual who was accidentally registered is typically very concerned as it can impede their ability to move through the residency and citizenship processes and we cancel the registration.”
She added, “We don’t typically make a formal report to the DOL as the action item (cancelling the registration) is on our end. But, we do meet regularly with the DOL and bring it up in discussion when needed, and the DOL regularly shares their training and efforts toward continuously improving service and consistency in the customer experience.”
Also raising the alarm that election cycle was Sue Higginbotham, administrative assistant to the Kittitas County Auditor’s Office. In an Oct. 10, 2019 email to SOS, she wrote that a local resident who was not a U.S. citizen received a voter ballot.
In this instance, he had been registered to vote in 2014, when he renewed his driver’s license.
“His daughter was there with him and she stated that he was not asked about becoming a registered voter, updating his registration or anything else,” Higginbotham wrote in the email. “I know that was a language barrier, but it is very discouraging to know that DOL personnel are assisting in the process of registering NON-Citizens. I can’t not believe that our local Kittitas County office is the only one in the state to have something slip through. There needs to be something in place for those not receiving the enhanced driver’s license to verify Citizenship prior to clicking that little button.”
In an email response, SOS Director of Elections Lori Augino wrote that DOL would be making updates to online licensing process, including translated it “in language they [residents] prefer. This is a huge step in the right direction for our system.”
In an Oct. 11, 2019 email sent to other DOL employees, Interim Deputy Assistant Director Gregory Chaney wrote that they “must ensure that all procedures are followed and customers understand the qualifications to register to vote and be mindful of the need to be clear as possible regarding voter registration when utilizing translation services for our customers.”
Kittitas Auditor Bryan Elliott wrote in an email to The Center Square that since 2019, their office has not experienced similar situations of foreign citizens being automatically registered to vote.
Yet, the problem apparently persisted into the 2020 election. One woman, whose name The Center Square is declining to print because she is a private citizen, wrote in a Sept. 23 2020 email to DOL, SOS, and Pierce County Elections that a Chinese student was registered to vote and received a ballot despite him insisting he was not legally allowed to vote and his host family requesting his name be removed from voter registration. In the same email, she wrote that a similar situation had also occurred with a Ukrainian national.
“The State Auditor’s office said that the Department of Licensing assured them that they carefully follow state regulations about ensuring only Americans receive ballots,” she wrote in the email. “This is not happening. These are two instances when foreign nationals are presenting their foreign passports and automatically receiving election ballots. Both were not asked ‘are you an American citizen?’ They proved, through their passports, that they were foreign nationals. I received answer that if a person is asked the question, ‘Are you an American citizen?’ and do not answer or do not understand English, they will be issued a voter registration card.”
She added that “the Pierce County Auditor’s department has said this issue is outside their audit authority, and referred me to the Secretary of State Elections Division.”
Related Story: New York Supreme Court Strikes Down NYC Law Allowing Noncitizen Residents to Vote in City Elections