Posts amplify baseless claims non-citizens can vote in federal elections

Social media posts say welfare offices around the United States are helping undocumented immigrants register to vote in national elections, amplifying a widespread conspiracy theory. But the claims omit crucial context on requirements under federal law, which bars non-citizens from voting.

"Welfare offices in 49 states are handing out voter registration applications to illegal aliens. No proof of citizenship required," said J Michael Waller in an X post on June 23, 2024.

Later that day, SpaceX and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, who owns the X platform, replied: "Another 'conspiracy theory' turns out to be true. Strange that Arizona requires proof of citizenship for state, but not federal elections."

<span>Screenshot of an X post taken June 25, 2024</span>
Screenshot of an X post taken June 25, 2024

The post circulated across social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram, as the surge of crossings at the US-Mexico border remains a key issue of the 2024 presidential election.

Since Musk's 2022 acquisition of X, the site has restored thousands of once-banned accounts and introduced a paid verification system that critics say has boosted conspiracy theories.

Among these are unfounded concerns of undocumented immigrants exerting influence on US elections, and often revolve around claims that Democrats are "importing voters," in a plot to rig results, a theory repeatedly shared by Musk himself.

However, non-citizens, including permanent residents with green cards, cannot vote or register to vote in federal elections, and attempting to do so is a crime under a law passed by Congress in 1996 (archived here).

AFP has extensively debunked similar claims in both English and Spanish. Still, a group of House Republicans introduced a bill in May to require eligible voters to show documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote in federal elections (archived here).

Federal law requirements

The statements made by Waller and Musk leave out crucial context on vote requirements and stoke baseless claims of non-citizen votes tipping elections.

Claiming that welfare offices across the country are handing out voter registration applications to non-citizens without requiring proof of citizenship is misleading -- such institutions are required by law to provide these forms. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) mandates voter registration forms be provided to those utilizing public assistance and disability agencies to ensure more equitable access (archived here).

However, most undocumented immigrants cannot qualify for welfare benefits, and receiving an application does not mean someone is registered to vote (archived here).

Less than an hour after Musk made the speculative remark, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer wrote: "I did your 5 seconds of Wikipedia research for you to show you there is a US Supreme Court case on this exact item, and that it is federal law, not Arizona law, that requires this" (archived here).

Richer referenced a 2013 ruling in the case of Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. which found state law requiring applicants to present documentary proof of citizenship as a condition for voter registration is preempted by Congress's power to regulate federal elections (archived here).

It is accurate that Arizona applicants using the state registration form must provide proof of citizenship to be a "full ballot" voter (archived here), and anyone who does not provide proof of citizenship is considered a "federal only" voter eligible to vote only in federal elections; for president, the US House of Representatives and Senate.

Of the state's more than 4 million voters, "there are about 30,000" who can only vote in federal contests, Richer said in an April 3, 2024 X post (archived here and here).

According to a national survey conducted in 2023, about one in 10 adult citizens say they either do not have or could not quickly find (to show the next day) their proof of citizenship, such as a US birth certificate, passport, naturalization certificate or certificate of citizenship.

Non-citizen voting is rare

Although the federal form does not require documentary proof, applicants must attest under penalty of perjury that they are US citizens.

"There are pretty explicit punishments for saying you are a US citizen and eligible to vote when you are not," Martha Kropf, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (archived here), previously told AFP.

Non-citizens face fines, prison sentences and deportation for illegally registering or voting.

"And, consider this -- if you were a non-citizen would you register to vote and then vote and risk being deported back to your home country?" Kropf asked.

Additionally, election officials vet applications and verify citizenship status. A few states, like Arizona, use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) federal database to verify the citizenship of voter registration applicants (archived here).

Experts say evidence of non-citizens voting is sparse (archived here and here). A 2016 review found only an estimated 30 incidents of suspected cases out of 23.5 million votes cast (archived here).

David Lublin, chair of the department of government at American University's School of Public Affairs (archived here), previously told AFP: "It's far more common for citizens to be incorrectly flagged as non-citizen."

Read more of AFP's reporting on misinformation surrounding migration here and the 2024 US election here.