Investigators want details of DMV ‘glitch’ that allowed noncitizens to vote

(Photo courtesy of N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles)

Listen to this story (11 minutes)

  • Public records show investigations and letters on non-citizens voting in North Carolina's 2016 election.
  • In a search this week using names and other details of 24 people charged with registering illegally or "voting by alien," 12 of them still appear on N.C. voter rolls, with some marked "inactive."

The back and forth over noncitizen voting in 2016 N.C. elections took on a new layer this week, as the group Citizens for Renewing America blasted the State Board of Elections in a letter demanding answers about how election officials are preventing it from happening again this November.

“There is every reason to believe your state’s elections are not secure and the potential for noncitizens to vote in the upcoming midterms remains largely unaddressed,” wrote Russell Vought, president of Citizens for Renewing America.

The letter, addressed to Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, challenges the board to prove that a 2016 “glitch” at the Division of Motor Vehicles, one that allowed noncitizens to register to vote in 2016, has been fixed.

“You may take issue with the assertion that the DMV pre-population practice remains an ongoing concern, but simply claiming the issue was resolved five years ago — when your agency appears to have failed to disclose the issue — is simply not good enough for the citizens of your state or the American people,” Vought wrote.

The conflict started when Vought appeared Aug. 12 on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” discussing documents his group and an affiliated organization, American Accountability Foundation, received through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Vought spoke on national television about “systemic voter fraud being done in North Carolina at the State Board of Election level and the DMV to incentivize illegal immigrants voting in the election.”

He tweeted links to 2021 documents and emails sent to Bell from G. Norman Acker III, then-acting-U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The documents reveal details about NCSBE’s investigation into 2016 DMV applications that had the citizenship check-box pre-populated with “yes.” An unknown number of noncitizens were able to register to vote.

A 2017 NCSBE audit says it appears that at least 700 registrations may have been noncitizens, 136 of whom actually voted in the 2016 election. The NCSBE audit uncovered that 41 noncitizens with legal status (green cards) cast ballots in 2016, and 24 people were charged with “voting by alien.”

Bell’s statement on Vought’s comments points out that NCSBE was the first organization that reported the problem. The NCSBE responded to Vought’s appearance on Carlson’s show and his accusations that noncitizens may still be able to register and may still be on N.C. voter lists.

“Vought’s on-air statements would lead any viewer to believe the issue is ongoing, which it is not,” wrote Bell. “This issue was corrected six years ago. He also suggested that this issue was intentional, which is categorically false.”

In the 2021 documents obtained from the records request, Bell wrote back to Acker a few days after his inquiry. She stated that in 2017, NCSBE conducted an audit of counties in the Eastern District, and the issue with pre-population of the citizenship question on DMV voter registration forms only affected a small number of registrants and was resolved. In the letter, she did not elaborate on what the problem was, how it was fixed, or why the board did not audit all 100 counties.

“It is frustrating and disheartening to all of us who work so hard to conduct accessible, secure, and fair elections that anyone can go on a popular show and spread false information about elections to the American people, without any opportunity for rebuttal or fact-checking,” said Bell about Vought in her statement last week. “Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to respond to most of the mis- and disinformation about elections. We are using this case as an example, as we will with egregious cases in the future.”

Names remain on N.C. voter rolls

Bell also said in her letter that since the U.S. Attorney’s office had failed to provide any documentation of individuals that it claimed were noncitizens, the state board could not remove these voters from the rolls.

However, among the documents obtained in the public records, the names of those charged with illegal voting were provided. In a search this week, using the names and other details of those 24 people charged with registering illegally or “voting by alien,” 12 of them still appear on N.C. voter rolls, with some marked “inactive.”

“We have no way to check if any of those people have acquired citizenship since their indictment or conviction,” said Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation.

 “The State Board of Elections is a member of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services SAVE program and can use it to check their status. Any noncitizens should be removed from the voter rolls, not just placed on the inactive list,” he added.

Without specifics in Bell’s letter on how DMV fixed the problem and what safeguards are now in place, Carolina Journal reached out to the state Department of Transportation for answers.

Marty Homan, communications manager for N.C. DOT, responded in an email, “As noted in the (NCSBE) release below, the pre-populating was a temporary issue that was resolved several years ago.”

Homan’s response also did not elaborate on how it was fixed or what the glitch was in the first place. That is exactly the problem, according to Wade Miller, executive director of Citizens for Renewing America.

“They like to pat themselves on the back for reporting it. They say they fixed the pre-population issue, but they provide no technical breakdown of what the issue actually was or a technical breakdown of what the solution was,” said Miller.

SAVE federal database

The NCSBE’s investigation appears to have been only in 44 counties in the Eastern District of the state but not the 56 remaining counties, raising a red flag to CRA that the true extent and impact of the problem with DMV applications may not be known. The NCSBE audit also reported that their finding was that “all cases involve documented noncitizens who were admitted into the country lawfully. All individuals subject to this audit were matched to the Department of Homeland Security’s database using information obtained from the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).”

That DHS database is called SAVE. CRA says use of the SAVE database as a primary source is another part of the problem. It contains the names of people who have come into contact with U.S. Customs and Immigration, during which they would have been assigned an alien identification number.

According to Miller, that may leave a gaping hole in election safeguards.

“The people who would not appear on that scrub are the ones who might be here illegally, that would not be detected by the SAVE database,” said Miller.

“They’ve done the bare minimum to say that they have been willing to address it, but the larger population of people who would be affected by this have not actually been identified, and they have not actually been removed from the voter rolls,” Miller added. “There doesn’t seem to be any active effort by the North Carolina State Board of Elections to go in and scrub the rest of that database against state databases and any other federal database that may be at their disposal.”

Jackson says there might be a way to minimize the issue, but it would require legislation from the N.C. General Assembly, which Gov. Roy Cooper appears unwilling to support.

“One way to minimize the number of noncitizens on our voter rolls is to crosscheck lists of people who are excused from jury duty because they are not citizens against voter registration rolls,” said Jackson. “Unfortunately, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the State Board of Elections have not developed a system for sharing that data.”

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2019 mandating a system to check jury-excuse data against voter rolls, but Cooper vetoed that bill. Jackson said the General Assembly should revisit the issue in the 2023 long session.

“If the state is going to say this problem is fixed, as a duty to the voters, answer what was the problem, and what steps were taken to fix it?” said Miller. “We certainly hope they have fixed it, and we are willing to acknowledge if they have. But it doesn’t fix the systemic nature of the ongoing problem with the SAVE database being the only thing that they’ve done to scrub anyone who may have gotten on the voter rolls erroneously.”

Claiming recent actions by the NCSBE are overtly partisan, Vought wrote in Friday’s letter to elections leaders that N.C. voters and the rest of the country deserve more transparency from the state board.

“Your office usurped the state legislature to change voting laws in North Carolina in 2020, and therefore your record leaves your credibility in upholding the state’s election laws very much in question,” Vought wrote. “Indeed, your settlement at the behest of Democrat attorney Marc Elias to change the rules for mail-in ballots, which was repudiated by two federal judges as a flagrant violation of the legal system, evidences your commitment to partisanship over the rule of law.”