Foreign nationals automatically registered to vote in Washington state: report

When residents are issued a driver's license they are automatically registered to vote, and state law makes it illegal to ask citizenship status.

The Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) received numerous reports of foreign nationals being automatically registered to vote in the state during recent election cycles. Some reports were even in cases where the foreigners insisted to the department itself that they were not legally allowed to vote.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed House Bill 2595 in 2018, which automatically registers people to vote when they are issued a driver’s license or renew an existing license. Additionally, state law does not allow the Washington Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) to verify citizenship when they receive a voter’s registration.

According to emails obtained by The Center Square, a public disclosure request revealed instances where foreign nationals were registered to vote, even in some cases when they insisted while obtaining a license that they were not US citizens.

Vanessa Mathisen, an immigration attorney with World Relief Spokane, stated in a Nov. 7, 2018 email 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.”

She added, “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.”

The lawyer continued, “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 in the state and includes up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

DOL Technical Operations Consultant Jace Anderson wrote in response to her email, “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.”

Notes from a 2018 monthly King County Voter Education Fund (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 [?]”

In an Oct. 29, 2019, email to VEF recipients, King County Elections Director Julie Wise responding to reports she had heard from them about the issue said, “Let me start by saying that I am also deeply concerned about this. 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.”

She added, “I have raised this issue with the Department of Licensing in the past and will continue to do so.”

Sue Higginbotham, an administrative assistant to the Kittitas County Auditor’s Office, wrote in an Oct. 10, 2019 email to SOS, that a local resident who was not a US citizen received a voter ballot and 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. 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.”

Interim Deputy Assistant Director Gregory Chaney wrote in an Oct. 11, 2019, email to other DOL employees 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.”

During the 2020 election, one woman, whose name was withheld by the outlet 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 having insisted he was not legally allowed to vote and his host family requesting his name be removed from voter registration.

She added that something similar had happened 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. 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."

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