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North Carolina Republicans seek fall referendum on citizen-only voting in constitution

Updated: Jun 7

FILE - North Carolina state Rep. Destin Hall, a top Republican redistricting official, speaks to reporters, Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C. In a move that could boost fall turnout among conservatives, North Carolina Republican legislators advanced a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday that attempts to make clear only U.S. citizens can vote. It would retool language on the books that already limits balloting to anyone born in the country or who are naturalized citizens. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum, file)© Provided by The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In a move that could boost fall turnout among conservatives, North Carolina Republican legislators advanced a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday to make it clear that only U.S. citizens can vote in the state. It would retool language on the books that already limits balloting to U.S.-born or naturalized citizens 18 and older.

A House election-law panel voted to put the question on statewide ballots this November, when races for president, governor and other statewide and legislative races will be contested. Republicans have enough General Assembly members on their own to initiate the referendum if they remain united on the idea.

Republican legislatures in at least six states already have agreed to place noncitizen voting measures on the fall ballots, including Wisconsin, another presidential battleground. Supporters elsewhere have been stressing a Republican campaign theme that immigrants crossing into the country illegally at the Mexican border could somehow vote in this fall's high-stakes elections.

It is already illegal in the U.S. for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. And North Carolina's current state constitution notes that voting is limited to “every person born in the United States and every person who has been naturalized, 18 years of age,” provided they meet other qualifications. The Republican-backed amendment would rework the line to read, “Only a citizen of the United States who is 18 years of age.”

The bill’s chief sponsors — House Speaker Tim Moore among them — have said the proposal is about preserving election integrity and preventing potential foreign influence in elections.

Another sponsor, House Rules Committee Chairman Destin Hall, told the committee that some have suggested the constitution's current language “may be a floor up rather than the ceiling of who can vote,” and that “the fear is that some future court could decide that that’s not a limitation on everybody who can vote.”

Some local jurisdictions — including San Francisco and the District of Columbia — have begun allowing immigrants who aren’t citizens to vote in local races for school board or city council. Hall mentioned the large number of recent illegal border crossings from Mexico while pitching the need for the language.

The proposal “makes it absolutely clear and removes all reasonable doubt that only citizens can vote in our state’s elections,” he said.

Democrats on the committee criticized the proposal as unnecessary and a waste of time and resources. State voter registration applications already make clear that voting is limited to citizens, and that lying about it on the form is a low-grade felony.

“I feel like we’re chasing a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. “It just seems like we are creating a situation that might be chilling new citizens’ desire to vote.”

A 2016 election audit in North Carolina found that 41 legal immigrants who had not yet become citizens cast ballots, out of 4.8 million total ballots cast that fall. The state now lists nearly 7.5 million registered voters.

The federal prosecutor’s office in eastern North Carolina said in 2021 that it had charged 24 people over the previous 18 months while investigating allegations of voter-related fraud, which included accusations of noncitizens illegally voting or falsely claiming U.S. citizenship to register to vote.

Ann Webb with voting advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina spoke against the referendum in committee, calling it an “attempt to spread lies that cast doubt on our elections and divide us, fostering an environment where prejudice and violence can thrive.”

While constitutional amendments aren’t subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, proposals can’t be brought before voters unless 72 of the House’s 120 members and 30 of the Senate’s 50 members vote yes. Republicans have exactly those numbers of members in the respective chambers.

A simple majority of voters in November would have to vote yes on the referendum question for the language to be edited into the constitution.

Pro-amendment speaker Kevrick McKain with Americans For Citizen Voting, a national organization that aims to advance amendments to make voting the exclusive right of U.S. citizens, said an amendment would give "we the people the right to weigh in on our state’s law, instead of letting the state be vulnerable to interpretations.”

A House committee now has to approve the measure before it can go to the House for a full vote.

Senate leader Phil Berger seems open to the idea.

“I think you can make a legalistic argument that something like that is already prohibited," Berger told reporters in late April. “However, I don’t see any harm in including that as a constitutional amendment. We’ll see if there’s enough support.”

___ This story has been corrected to show that the group is Americans For Citizen Voting, not Americans For Citizens Voting, and its representative is Kevrick McKain, not Kevrick McCain.


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