What’s Wrong with Using DHS’ Immigration Database to Purge Voter Rolls? (A Lot)

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Some politicians are worried about non-citizens voting fraudulently in elections, but others contend the real problem is eligible immigrants not registering to vote.

Florida was finally granted access to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigration database last week. The state will use information from the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program to pursue its goal of purging noncitizens from its voter rolls. Colorado and several other states that petitioned DHS for access received word Monday that they will also be able to use SAVE for the same purpose.

Some activists have sounded the alarm in protest. But what is so wrong about using SAVE to identify people who have no business voting in the first place?

Well, first and foremost, the program was not designed to purge voter rolls.

The SAVE Program is an inter-governmental initiative designed to help benefit-granting agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local agencies determine an applicant’s immigration status and their eligibility to receive benefits and licenses.

John Roessler, chief of the SAVE program, maintains that SAVE is technically not even a database. “SAVE uses an online system that queries for data from multiple sources, including those that are updated in real-time and others that are updated in daily uploads.”

The SAVE process is initiated by entering identifying numbers found on immigration documents, such as alien registration numbers, and as such the system is unable to verify U.S. born citizens. The program is not a complete or accurate list of U.S. citizens.

In short, SAVE is not a definitive check for whether a person is eligible to vote or not. It runs the risk of identifying a U.S. citizen as a noncitizen—thereby robbing her of the right to vote.

What’s more, SAVE can easily be misused and abused.

The Advancement Project, a nonpartisan, national civil rights group, has expressed concern over the stampede to employ SAVE in purging voter rolls. In particular, states requesting access to the database have not provided information about how they intend to use the program to identify noncitizens on their voter rolls. Nor have they identified safeguards to ensure that U.S. citizens do not lose their right to vote as a result of program errors.

Immigrant advocates have also raised concerns that immigration checks at the polls will scare eligible immigrant voters away. Valeria Treves, executive director of New Immigrant New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in New York, told Fi2W earlier this week that it erodes the trust between immigrants and the government. “If they see all this info sharing between local and federal agencies, it’s going to dissuade immigrants from engaging in the actions that we all engage in,” she said.

We should all question the motivation behind the initiatives in Florida, Colorado and the other states that will use SAVE to prune their voter rolls.

The Advancement Project argues that there is little to no evidence that noncitizen voting is a real problem. After all, federal voting law already requires proof of citizenship. However, Latino and other immigrant groups, which tend to vote Democratic and have polled majority support for President Obama, are the groups most impacted by voter purges and scare tactics. In an extremely tight presidential contest, every vote counts, especially in battleground states like Florida. Keeping eligible voters from the ballot box is one way to win an election. The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and should not be denied to any citizen.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.