Mike Lee says he wants to stop noncitizen immigrants from voting — but has no evidence they are

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is the Senate sponsor of the SAVE Act, a bill he says is needed to ensure undocumented immigrants cannot voting in U.S. elections. He’s also fundraising on the claim.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Sen. Mike Lee endorses Colby Jenkins at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 27, 2024. Lee is fundraising on a claim that undocumented immigrants are voting in U.S. elections, but there is no evidence they are.

Sen. Mike Lee has recently joined the chorus of right-wing voices warning that immigrants and noncitizens are registering to vote, which is why he signed on to proposed legislation requiring proof of citizenship as part of the voter registration process. However, Lee hasn’t produced any evidence to back up his claims.

The possibility of noncitizens casting a ballot is the latest immigration-related boogeyman employed by conservatives to raise doubt about the legitimacy of elections. Lee, along with other prominent Republicans, are invoking images of hordes of immigrants flooding over the southern U.S. border to tip elections toward Democrats. Former President Donald Trump is using the issue on the campaign trail, while Elon Musk has pushed the idea on social media, claiming, “They (Democrats) are importing voters.”

During a Sunday interview on Fox News, host Maria Bartoromo asked Lee about claims that the Biden administration was giving newly arrived immigrants voter registration materials.

Bartiromo: “Ken Paxton, the A.G. of Texas, last week told me that he thinks, when they cross the border, officials are giving them Social Security numbers, and they’re giving them voter registration sheets. What about that,” Bartiromo asked the senator. “Do you have any evidence of that?”

“Yes. So - well, yes, it’s happening all over the place,” Lee replied.

Lee continued the interview without citing evidence or specific examples. Sen. Lee’s office did not respond to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Lee is the Senate sponsor of the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility (SAVE) Act, which updates the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), more commonly referred to as the Motor Voter Act, to require anyone registered to vote in U.S. elections to provide proof of citizenship. Currently, people must only fill out a form swearing they are U.S. Citizens, but documentation is not required.

During a news conference unveiling the SAVE Act, House Speaker Mike Johnson similarly could not offer any evidence to support the claim that noncitizen voting was a crisis.

“We all know, intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections. But it’s not been something that is easily provable,” Johnson said.

In 2004, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative requiring voters to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote. The Supreme Court struck down the Arizona law in 2013, ruling that NVRA pre-empted Arizona’s requirement.

“What that means is a person can fill out a form. As long as they check the right box and sign their name and are willing to lie, they can vote in federal elections even if they’re not citizens, and they couldn’t prove it because they’re not citizens,” Lee explained on Sunday.

In what is likely not a coincidence, Lee has jumped on the issue as a fundraising tool.

On Monday morning, Lee’s campaign sent out an email with “Illegal immigrants are being registered to vote” as its subject line. The email links to Lee’s fundraising website, which asks for donations to aid his “efforts to protect our elections.”

There’s very little evidence that Lee’s alleged scenario is happening, let alone in numbers significant enough to impact the outcome of an election.

In 2016, Trump claimed widespread illegal voting was the reason he lost the national popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million votes. Spurred by Trump’s claims, a Brennan Center for Justice study examined election data from 42 jurisdictions. Of the 23.5 million ballots in the study, they found an estimated 30 incidents of suspected, but not proven, noncitizen voting — just 0.0001% of votes cast.

Former Utah County Clerk Josh Daniels, who now leads the nonprofit group Trust Utah Elections, says claims that noncitizens are flocking to America to cast a ballot are nothing more than cynical fearmongering.

“This is complete nonsense and is a misconception that comes when people don’t understand the actual process,” Daniels said.

Daniels explains there are several safeguards to prevent noncitizens from registering to vote in the first place or to catch any that slip through. Every person who registers to vote in Utah has their citizenship status verified against the federal E-verify database, which determines whether a person is eligible for employment. Additionally, a Utah driver license complies with the Real ID Act, which also verifies citizenship status.

Daniels adds that it makes little sense for a noncitizen to register to vote because there are devastating legal consequences if caught.

“Under federal immigration laws, making a ‘false claim’ to citizenship, which can include a declaration of citizenship on a voter registration form, such persons can become legally deportable and barred from future entry into the United States,” he said. “Most immigrants and noncitizens would rather stay U.S. residents and workers than vote in an election once.”

The genesis of the current right-wing panic about fraudulent voting can be traced back to former Trump adviser Cleta Mitchell, who was reportedly circulating a memo about “the threat of noncitizen voting in 2024″ earlier this year. Lee and Mitchell worked together on the scheme to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Mitchell also represented Lee’s campaign in a 2017 campaign finance case and signed a letter touting Lee as a possible Supreme Court nominee.