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Opinion: A solution in search of a problem
Steve Smith
Steve Smith

At the beginning of every state legislative session, I look forward to filling out the online survey that our local representatives put together to take the temperature of their constituency on issues that could come up during the session.

This year’s survey contained the usual questions about education, health care, transportation, and the like, but question No. 6 gave me pause:

“Do you support an amendment of the Georgia Constitution that will limit voting in Georgia elections to United States citizens?”

At first glance, the question seems absurd. At second glance, questions of motive appear. Upon close inspection, however, the conservative answer to the question is a resounding, No. 

First, the absurdity — of course it is illegal for non-citizens to vote in federal elections. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 makes that crystal clear. 

Whether or not non-citizens are allowed to vote in state and local elections is a matter left up to the states. Since 1923, it has been illegal in all states for non-citizens to vote in state elections, and there is currently no legislation in any state to repeal those laws. There are currently 11 local governments in the country that allow non-citizens to vote in certain local elections, none in Georgia. With a law that has served us well for over 100 years, that no one has any desire to repeal, a Constitutional amendment limiting state and local voting to U.S. citizens seems about as necessary as needing a bazooka to take care of the squirrels in the backyard bird feeder. 

Secondly, the motives — I’m sure the author of the question will tell you that they are concerned about protecting the integrity of the vote. Voter fraud has been the white whale for conservatives ever since George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000, and for two decades they have been peddling solutions in search of a problem. 

You see, voter fraud statistically doesn’t exist. Republicans have proved it.

In 2002, George W. Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, launched the Voting Integrity Initiative. He instructed all 93 U.S. Attorneys to make investigating and prosecuting voter fraud a top priority. Four years later, on July 26, 2006, the Justice Department released a fact sheet summarizing the findings of the Voting Integrity Initiative. In four years, they opened 300 investigations, prosecuted 119 cases, and convicted exactly 86 people. 

And how many of the 86 people convicted of voter fraud were non-citizens? I don’t know. Who cares; it was 86 people.

So why the focus on non-citizens as voting cheaters? Certainly, President Trump and his scurrilous fantasies of “millions and millions of illegals” costing him the popular vote in 2016 drive that narrative. The wildfire of anti-immigrant sentiment rages on in 2020, and the implicit subtext in question No. 6 — foreign invaders are trying to vote! — is pure oxygen for that fire.

Question No. 6 also justifies the attempt to make more laws that would have the effect of suppressing the votes of legally registered voters. If at first “exact match” does not succeed, try, try again. Next time you have a moment, Google “Brian Kemp and the Quitman 10.” Hollywood needs to make that movie.

Thirdly — and ironically — a closer look at the question reveals the anti-conservative implication that the state should have the right to wrest control away from local governments regarding who can and cannot vote in local elections.

Just 18 days ago in the Forsyth County News, regarding the state’s attempt to take away control of design standards from local government, District 25 Rep. Todd Jones said, “There are some in the General Assembly who believe the state should take away home rule from our county commissioners and city councilmen as it relates to how a local government can mandate a design standard for an area within the county or municipality. I am deeply disappointed that some of my colleagues believe that local government issues should be settled under the Gold Dome. We elect our local officials so we have ‘government closer to the people.’ This apparent hijacking attempt of their responsibilities is the classic definition of overreach.” 

Overreach, indeed. And if local control of design standards is an important fight, how much more important is the fight for local control of voting rights? Suppose, for instance, that the Forsyth County Commissioners saw fit to allow our county’s growing non-citizen population — many of whom own homes and pay property taxes that fund the schools that their children attend — to vote in school board elections. Our county commissioners should have that right without the overreach of the state telling them they can’t, right?

Whichever legislator came up with question No. 6 doesn’t sound very conservative to me.

We have more real problems facing our state than can be dealt with in a single three-month legislative session without wasting time throwing divisive and unnecessary culture war bombs like question No. 6. Rather than throw fuel on the fire of fear and division, how about using the legislative session to try and do the most good for the greatest number, because citizen or non-citizen, if you call Forsyth County home, you are a neighbor.

Steve Smith is a husband, father, artist, and progressive. He serves on the Executive Board of the Forsyth County Democratic Committee. Follow Steve on Twitter @FoCoSteve