On Wednesday, the House Committee on Election Law and Campaign Finance met to discuss HB 1074 ‘Citizen-Only Voting.’ After discussion, the bill was reported favorably and sent to the House Rules Committee. 

HB 1074, ‘Citizen-Only Voting,’ was recently filed by Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, hoping to give North Carolina voters the opportunity clarify the citizenship requirement by amending the state constitution.

“This changes the operative language to make it clear that, again, only a citizen of the United States who is 18 years of age and meets the other requirements in the Constitution can vote,” said Rep. Destin Hall in his presentation of the bill. “You may know (…) that there are somewhere around 16 or so towns and cities in the United States that currently do allow non-citizens to vote in elections. And I think the folks in this state overwhelmingly only want citizens to be able to vote. So, this is a constitutional amendment again that would be on the ballot this coming November again, making it absolutely crystal clear that only citizens can vote.”

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats argue current laws should be sufficient to keep non-citizens away from th voting booth. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, pointed to SB 747, which was passed in 2023 that includes a provision relating to this issue and, according to legislative staff, also established a process for the removal from voter rolls of noncitizens that have been excused for jury duty.

However, staff clarified those existing laws deal more with the person stating that they should not be serving on jury duty because they’re not a US citizen, not necessarily their initial registration and voting.

“I feel like we’re chasing a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Harrison. “I think it’s pretty clear in our Constitution that non-citizens can’t vote. I don’t know why we need to be going through this. I know there’s an expense, as I said, we’re putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It’s going to be a crowded ballot in 2024. I’m just very concerned about the signal this is sending to our new citizens in North Carolina.”

Our state constitution does speak to the issue of voting, but proponents of the clarifying language argue the current wording leaves room for dangerous interpretation.

“The North Carolina State Constitution currently states, ‘Every person born in the United States and every person who has been naturalized,’ can vote,” wrote Dr. Andy Jackson at the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. “The problem is that while the current language affirms the voting rights of most adult citizens, it is silent on whether noncitizens can vote.”

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, leader of the House Republican Joint Caucus asked about the appropriate definition of ‘citizen’ in this context, noting the importance of distinguishing between terms like “citizen” and “resident.” 

“Our law in North Carolina, you know, a citizen is someone who has a right to citizenship whether that be through they were born here or whether they were a naturalized citizen,” responded Hall. “I think that there’s no argument that someone who is not here and having this legal status of citizenship would fall under the word citizen in this constitutional amendment so it wouldn’t apply to someone who may have legal resident status, for example, but they’re not a citizen; certainly, would not apply to someone who is here without any sort of legal resident status.”

The debate isn’t completely drawn on partisan lines. Some Republicans, too, questioned the Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, vice chair of the committee, voiced had similar concerns to those brought up by Rep. Harrison.

“I’m having a hard time seeing a throng of people going and filing a case to vote,” said Dahle. “I don’t know how they could do that with our other laws in place. So, I’m really confused as to why we need to do this. And my second question would be, if, in fact, this bill does move forward, would you be amenable to an amendment that says ‘who is 18 years of age and every person who has been naturalized’?”

Committee member Rep. David Willis, R-Union, spoke on behalf of his wife, a legal immigrant and a naturalized citizen of the country.

Willis pointed out that, having spent a lot of time in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, many people who have legally immigrated and become naturalized citizens take voting rights and the sanctity of the voting process much more seriously than even natural-born citizens often do. He emphasized that many naturalized citizens are coming from police states and communist countries where the people have no voice or voting rights.

“They take our voting process and the right that they have and the privilege that they have to go and vote more seriously than most of our naturally born citizens,” said Willis. “It’s shocking to me that we can sit here and spend an hour debating something as simple as this that every single one of those folks that step across that line and wave their little flag when they get it and they get their naturalized paperwork are so proud to be part of a country that allows them to participate. And to do this, and to just simply want to put in the language that only citizens who are here and here legally, you know, can do that and have the right and the privilege to do so is controversial, is just astounding to me. We need to pass it now.

North Carolina voters have named illegal immigration and a border crisis as a top issue as some municipalities around the country implement non-citizen voting. Those who vote can dictate policy, something Dr. Jackson says shouldn’t be downplayed.

“Who possesses the right to influence policy in our state through voting is a fundamental question that should be unambiguously addressed in our Constitution,” said Jackson at the committee during the public comment period. “North Carolina law currently does limit voter registration to citizens. However, temporary legislative majorities or temporary judicial majorities can brush those protections aside; a constitutional amendment stating unequivocally that only citizens of the United States may vote would protect our current understanding. As a quick aside, I will say that our current language also excludes an entire category of citizens. Those are American citizens who are American by birth but are born overseas.”

The bill was approved by the committee before being referred to the House Rules Committee for further consideration.