With polls showing unauthorized immigration as Republicans’ best issue for the fall, the GOP is looking to raise the alarm about voting by non-citizens and the undocumented.

The multi-pronged effort has been advanced in congressional legislation, public statements by top election officials and U.S. senators, plans produced by grassroots activists, and posts on X by former President Donald Trump and others.

Concern over illegal immigration and border security was Trump’s central campaign issue when he won the presidency in 2016, and polls show it as the GOP’s most potent political weapon again in 2024. A Feb. 27 Gallup poll found 28% of respondents saw it as the country’s most important issue, well ahead of any other topic.

At an April 2 rally in Michigan, Trump seized on the recent murder of a local woman, Ruby Garcia, who law enforcement has alleged was killed by her undocumented boyfriend.

“We threw him out of the country and crooked Joe Biden let him back in and let him stay and he viciously killed Ruby,” said Trump.

But the party is also using the issue to bolster its ongoing push to stoke fear about voter fraud and press for more restrictive voting rules. And it has often trafficked in false and misleading claims about voting by undocumented immigrants.


Voter fraud claims

Voting by non-citizens is extremely rare. That’s because, voting advocates say, non-citizens are especially careful not to do anything that might jeopardize their status in the country.

A voter fraud database run by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which covers several decades in which billions of votes have been cast across the country, contains 29 entries that mention non-citizens. In some of these, a non-citizen registered but did not vote.

Still, over the last few weeks, Republican secretaries of state from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, and at least two U.S. Senate Republicans, were the latest to tout the issue.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wrote in a March 12 op-ed that “leftist-activist allies” of President Joe Biden “want to open the gate to non-citizen voting.”

At issue is a lawsuit challenging a Georgia measure requiring people registering to vote to show documentary proof of citizenship.

The voting-rights advocates behind the suit say the requirement isn’t needed, and can present a barrier to registration for some voters, especially naturalized citizens, who may not have easy access to citizenship documents.

In the op-ed, Raffensperger, who famously resisted Trump’s pressure to collude in subverting Georgia’s 2020 election results, sought to conflate the issue of illegal voting by the undocumented with burgeoning efforts by a few Democratic-led cities, including Washington, D.C., to allow legal non-citizens to vote in local elections.

He has pushed for a constitutional amendment in Georgia that would bar local governments in the state from enfranchising non-citizens.

“Leftist activists have already shown that they want to change the laws that require voters to be U.S. citizens,” Raffensperger wrote. “A constitutional amendment would eliminate any possibility for future efforts to change those laws.”


Warning on DOJ program

Days earlier, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, warning that a federal program aimed at making voter registration easier for people in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prison could lead to the registration not only of ineligible felons but also of the undocumented.

“Due to the Biden Administration’s border policies, millions of illegal aliens have not only been allowed into this country during the last three years, but they have also been allowed to stay. Many of these aliens have been in the custody of an agency of the Department of Justice including the Marshals,” Watson wrote in the letter, which his office provided to States Newsroom.

“Providing ineligible non-citizens with information on how to register to vote undoubtedly encourages them to illegally register to vote.”

The Justice Department program is part of the Biden administration’s response to the president’s sweeping 2021 executive order aimed at using federal government agencies to expand access to voter registration. Republicans have condemned the order as an improper attempt to use public resources to advance partisan political goals. There is no evidence the order has led to ineligible voters being added to the rolls.

Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen, as well as Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., also sought to raise concerns about non-citizen voting in an exchange at a March 12 hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The two Alabama Republicans charged that the federal government has denied election officials the tools they need to verify citizenship.

“I think (verifying citizenship) is important, now more than ever, especially given what’s happening at the southern border,” said Allen, who was testifying before the panel.

At the same hearing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used his time to ask the witnesses if they agreed that only U.S. citizens should be able to vote in federal elections — something that’s already the law — and that people registering to vote should have to show proof of citizenship. Lee later sent out a clip of the exchange on X.


Memo calls for proof of citizenship to register

Also last month, the conservative voting activist Cleta Mitchell, who played a key role in Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 election, circulated a memo on “the threat of non-citizen voting in 2024.” The memo, posted online by a conservative advocacy group, called for a federal law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when registering, among other steps.

“There are myriad left-wing advocacy groups who register illegals to vote,” Mitchell wrote, a charge for which she did not provide evidence.

But the party’s efforts to tie together voting and immigration have been underway for longer in this election cycle. Last March, as States Newsroom reported, a group of prominent conservative election activists came together to promote what they called a national campaign to “protect voting at all levels of government as the exclusive right of citizens.”

Months later, congressional Republicans unveiled a sweeping elections bill, which aimed to capture the GOP’s top priorities in its push to tighten voting rules, and which contained a full section on stopping non-citizen voting.

Among other steps, the measure would give states more access to federal data on citizenship and make it easier for them to remove people flagged as non-citizens from the rolls. It also would penalize states where non-citizens can vote in local elections by cutting their share of federal election funding.

While Democrats control the Senate and White House, the bill has little chance of becoming law.


Legislation on non-citizen voting

Separately, in the current session of Congress alone, the House Administration Committee has passed seven different bills addressing non-citizen voting.

Last year, the House voted to use Congress’ authority over the District of Columbia to overturn D.C.’s law enfranchising non-citizens — the first time the House had voted to overturn a District bill since 2015. The Senate didn’t take up the bill.

One Republican lawmaker introduced a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to ban non-citizen voting.

Legal non-citizen voting has a long history in the U.S. In the middle of the 19th century, at least 16 states passed measures enfranchising non-citizens, often to lure workers to underpopulated western states.

These laws were gradually repealed in the late 19th and early 20th century — a period when a more general anxiety about mass voting led to Jim Crow laws in the South and laws restricting voting by Catholic and Jewish immigrants in the north.

Some prominent figures have falsely suggested that Democrats are soft-pedaling border security so they can benefit from the votes of the undocumented.

“That’s why they are allowing these people to come in — people that don’t speak our language — they are signing them up to vote,” Trump said at a January rally in Iowa. “And I believe that’s why you are having millions of people pour into our country and it could very well affect the next election. That’s why they are doing it.”

Elon Musk, the billionaire tech entrepreneur, has taken a similar view.

“Dems won’t deport, because every illegal is a highly likely vote at some point,” Musk told his over 170 million followers in a Feb. 26 post on X, which he owns, commenting on news that an undocumented immigrant hadn’t been deported despite a string of arrests. “That simple incentive explains what seems to be insane behavior.”

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, charged in a 2022 TV ad: “Joe Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.”


Kansas law

One figure who may have done more than any to promote the threat of voting by non-citizens is Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach. As the state’s secretary of state, Kobach pushed for a law requiring voter registrants to provide proof of citizenship.

The law was ultimately struck down by a federal court, which found “no credible evidence” that a significant number of non-citizens had registered to vote before it was implemented. The law was responsible for keeping tens of thousands of voter registration applications in limbo during an election.

Kobach went on to chair a voter fraud commission created in 2017 by the Trump White House, which pushed for a federal law similar to the Kansas law. The panel disbanded the following year without providing evidence of widespread voter fraud.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder