South St. Louis County News

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South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Already outlawed in Missouri, noncitizen voting ban will appear on statewide ballot

The specter of immigrants voting illegally has become a election-year talking point for Republicans across the country

Missouri’s Constitution has banned noncitizens from voting since 1924. And state law requires individuals to verify they are a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote.

But GOP lawmakers contend the constitutional and statutory language isn’t strong enough. Instead of saying that “all citizens” can vote, Republicans argue the state constitution should be changed to make it clear that “only citizens” can vote.

So on the final day of the 2024 legislative session last month, the GOP pushed through a proposal that would, among other things, ask voters to change “all” to “only.”

“If they become a citizen, then absolutely I would welcome their engagement in our electoral process,” state Sen. Ben Brown, a Republican from Washington, said while presenting the bill to a House committee. “However, what I aim to do is to prevent the dilution of the voice of U.S. citizens.”

Critics painted the proposal as nothing more than “ballot candy” designed to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment and trick voters into signing off on the amendment’s other provision — a ban on ranked-choice voting.

Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, called the proposal a “red herring” at a legislative hearing last month.

“It’s already against the law,” she said.

The idea that noncitizens could be illegally voting has become an election-year talking point for Republicans across the country, often echoing the baseless conspiracy theory spread by former President Donald Trump that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election.

A nationwide survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found the number of noncitizens suspected to have voted in the 2016 election was only around 30. A national database run by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, shows that there have been fewer than 100 cases of voter fraud tied to noncitizens since 2002, according to a recent count by The Washington Post.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office this year announced only 137 suspected noncitizens were discovered to be on that state’s rolls out of roughly 8 million voters. And the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office found that 1,634 noncitizens attempted to register to vote over a 25 year period, but all had been blocked by local election officials.

Yet in some states, even though noncitizens are prohibited from voting in federal elections, they have been permitted to cast a ballot for local candidates.

In 16 cities and towns in California, Maryland and Vermont, noncitizens are allowed to vote in some local elections, such as for school board or city council. In 2022, New York’s State Supreme Court struck down New York City’s 2021 ordinance that allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections, ruling it violated the state constitution.

State Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and a candidate for governor, said the language in the Missouri Constitution designed to prohibit noncitizen voting is similar to other states where the practice is taking place locally.

He believes Democrats in Missouri could follow suit.

“So do I think that if (St. Louis) Mayor Tishaura Jones thought that there was an opportunity to start engaging noncitizens to vote in local St. Louis city municipal elections, would she do it using the same procedure that’s happened to these other states?” he said. “I absolutely think she would. So for me, it’s important to put these additional protections in the constitution.”

Already illegal? 

In 1865, Missouri voters approved a new constitution abolishing slavery. The 1865 “Drake Constitution,” written by what were called Radical Republicans, took the vote away from former Confederates and extended it to immigrants who were not yet citizens but who had declared their intent to become one.

The provision rewarded the largest immigrant group in Missouri at the time, Germans, who were among the most anti-slavery, and therefore Radical Republican voters.

The franchise was taken away from noncitizens in 1924, when newcomers were more likely to come from eastern and southern Europe, in an amendment proposed by a state Constitutional Convention passed with 53.5% of the vote.

In addition to the century-old constitutional prohibition, state law also requires Missourians to declare whether they are a U.S. citizen when registering to vote. And Missouri Secretary of State Jay Aschroft, a Republican and candidate for governor, has repeatedly clarified over the years that state law says “you have to be a citizen to register to vote.”

Much of Missouri’s debate this year about noncitizen voting took place as part of a session-long fight over a Republican push to make it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process.

A campaign to legalize abortion up to the point of fetal viability submitted more than 380,000 signatures to the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, paving the way for the proposed constitutional amendment to potentially land on the November ballot.

In response, Republicans hoped to raise the threshold for amending the constitution from a simple majority statewide to both a majority of votes statewide and a majority of votes in five of the state’s eight congressional districts.

Under that proposal, approximately 23% of voters could theoretically control the outcome, where a vote against an amendment in four districts would be enough to defeat it statewide.

Many Republican proponents of raising the bar for amending the constitution acknowledged its chances of winning voter approval was slim.

“Raising the threshold is a loser and various states have proven that’s a loser,” Tim Jones, state director of the Missouri Freedom Caucus, said earlier this year.

So to bolster the amendment’s chances, Republicans added the noncitizen voting provision.

Senate Democrats refused to allow the proposal to go to the ballot with the noncitizen language, arguing it was deceptive. They staged a 50-hour filibuster that ultimately killed the proposal amid Republican infighting.

“It’s in there to deceive voters,” state Sen. Karla May, a St. Louis Democrat, said during the filibuster about the noncitizen voting ban. “It’s already law, but they want to trick voters into thinking it’s not law. It’s deceiving language added to the bill.”

Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, seemed to agree, telling a reporter from Nextar Media Group that “it’s already illegal for an illegal to vote in the state of Missouri. We’ve already got that part.”

With the Senate mired in gridlock, the House picked up and passed the rank-choice voting amendment that included noncitizen provision. After months of heated debate over the issue, it was barely mentioned when the rank-choice voting ban was sent to the ballot on the session’s final day.

“It seems like we’ve been wringing our hands for about a week or two on this particular issue,” state Rep. Brad Banderman, a St. Clair Republican, said during the House debate, “but on this day, on this Senate Joint Resolution, the other side of the aisle doesn’t seem to be standing at mics complaining.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

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