Sen. Hillary Clinton was asked during a debate this week if she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. At first she seemed to endorse the idea, then claimed, "I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it."
The next day she took a firmer stand (sort of) by offering general support for Gov. Spitzer's approach, but adding that she hadn't studied his specific plan. She should, and so should the rest of us. It stops just short of being an engraved invitation for people to commit voter fraud.
The background here is the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as "Motor Voter," that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993. It required all states to offer voter registration to anyone getting a driver's license. One simply fills out a form and checks a box stating he is a citizen; he is then registered and in most states does not have to show any ID to vote.
But no one checks if the person registering to vote is indeed a citizen. That greatly concerns New York election officials, who processed 245,000 voter registrations at DMV offices last year. "It would be [tough to catch] if someone wanted to . . . get a number of people registered who aren't citizens and went ahead and got them drivers' licenses," says Lee Daghlian, spokesman for New York's Board of Elections. Assemblywoman Ginny Fields, a Long Island Democrat, warns that the state's "Board of Elections has no voter police" and that the state probably has upwards of 500,000 illegal immigrants old enough to drive.
The potential for fraud is not trivial, as federal privacy laws prevent cross-checking voter registration rolls with immigration records. Nevertheless, a 1997 Congressional investigation found that "4,023 illegal voters possibly cast ballots in [a] disputed House election" in California. After 9/11, the Justice Department found that eight of the 19 hijackers were registered to vote.
Under pressure from liberal groups, some states have even abandoned the requirement that people check a citizenship box to be put on the voter rolls. Iowa has told local registrars they should register people even if they leave the citizenship box blank. Maryland officials wave illegal immigrants through the registration process, prompting a Justice Department letter warning they may be helping people violate federal law.
Gov. Spitzer is treading perilously close to that. Despite a tactical retreat this week he says he will only give illegal immigrants a license that isn't valid for airplane travel and entering federal buildings Mr. Spitzer has taken active steps to obliterate any distinctions between licenses given to citizens and non-citizens.
In a memo last Sept. 24, he ordered county clerks to remove the visa expiration date and "temporary visitor" stamp on licenses issued to non-citizens who are legally in the country. A Spitzer spokeswoman explained the change was made because the "temporary" label was "pejorative," given that some visitors might eventually stay in the U.S. Under fire, Mr. Spitzer backed down this week, delaying the cancellation of the "temporary visitor" stamps through the end of next year.
But he has not retreated from another new bizarre policy. It used to be that county clerks who process driver's licenses were banned from giving out voter registration forms to anyone without a Social Security number. No longer. Lou Dobbs of CNN reported that an Oct. 19 memo from the state DMV informed the clerks they don't "have any statutory discretion to withhold a motor voter form." What's more, the computer block preventing a DMV clerk from transmitting a motor voter registration without a Social Security number was removed.
Gov. Spitzer's office told me the courts have upheld their position on Social Security numbers. Sandy DePerno, the Democratic clerk of Oneida County, says that makes no sense. "This makes voter fraud easier," she told me.
While states such as New York are increasing the risk of such fraud, a half-dozen states have recently adopted laws requiring voters to offer proof of identity or citizenship before casting a ballot. A federal commission, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, gave such laws a big boost in 2005 when it called for a nationwide policy requiring a photo ID before voting.
Mr. Carter has personal knowledge of why such laws are needed. He recounts in his book "Turning Point" how his 1962 race for Georgia State Senate involved a local sheriff who had cast votes for the dead. It took a recount and court challenge before Mr. Carter was declared the winner.
Measures that curb voter fraud on the one hand and encourage it on the other will be central to the 2008 election. The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Indiana's photo ID law next spring, while lawsuits challenging Gov. Spitzer's moves will be in New York state courts.
Despite her muddled comments this week, there's no doubt where Mrs. Clinton stands on ballot integrity. She opposes photo ID laws, even though they enjoy over 80% support in the polls. She has also introduced a bill to force every state to offer no-excuse absentee voting as well as Election Day registration easy avenues for election chicanery. The bill requires that every state restore voting rights to all criminals who have completed their prison terms, parole or probation.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen notes that Mrs. Clinton is such a polarizing figure that she attracts between 46% and 49% support no matter which Republican candidate she's pitted against even libertarian Ron Paul. She knows she may have trouble winning next year. Maybe that's why she's thrown herself in with those who will look the other way as a new electoral majority is formed even if that includes non-citizens, felons and those who suddenly cross a state line on Election Day and decide they want to vote someplace new.