Editorial: Protect election integrity in driver's license debate

The Detroit News

Michigan officials are considering whether to offer driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and while there may be valid safety reasons for doing so, the state must also ensure the integrity of its voter rolls. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, is proposing a bill that would give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses -- the third session in a row she has sponsored such a bill. The previous two attempts went nowhere. 

In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo a lone voter fills out a ballot alongside a row of empty booths at a polling station in the Terrace Park Community Building on Election Day in Cincinnati.

But this time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the idea, giving it a better chance of at least being debated. 

“The governor supports a path for undocumented immigrants to get an identification and would support legislation to do so,” Whitmer’s spokesperson Tiffany Brown said in an email. 

Critics say the legislation would reward lawbreakers and give those who are here illegally the same rights as legal residents. 

Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, for example, pointed out in a statement that such a measure “would make our system more susceptible to voter fraud and abuse.” In addition, Lower said the measure “would send the wrong message to law abiding citizens and individuals who choose to follow the legal path to citizenship.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, agrees: "This is a bad plan that has the potential to hurt election activities," noting the measure could make Michigan a "safe haven for criminal activity."

But Chang contends it's "a bill that fixes problems" and that it would improve the lives of all, not just immigrants. 

The state's agricultural economy relies on migrant workers and safe roads, Chang says. Without a driver’s license, the undocumented workers can’t get to jobs, and can’t obtain auto insurance. 

“Ensuring that migrant drivers have taken driver's tests and gotten car insurance would be a benefit to all of us,” she says, citing an AAA study that claims unlicensed drivers are significantly more likely to be involved in fatal car crashes.

Chang notes the conservative Michigan Farm Bureau has long supported the concept.

The danger, however, is that issuing driver’s license will give non-citizens a free pass to the voting booth. In Michigan, the Secretary of State Office oversees both driver's licenses and voter registration, and the office has made registering new voters a priority. 

A woman inserts her ballot into the machine after voting at a Lifeguard headquarters that doubles as a polling station during the midterm elections in Hermosa Beach, California, on November 6, 2018. - Americans started voting Tuesday in critical midterm elections that mark the first major voter test of US President Donald Trump's controversial presidency, with control of Congress at stake. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP)MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Chang says this bill, like those she has introduced in the past, would mandate the licenses for those who could not prove legal residence “include a recognizable feature on the front of the license indicating that it is not valid for official purposes.” 

But Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, is not so sure that would be enough to deter voter fraud. 

The problem, he says, is that the National Voter Registration Act mandates that citizens must be given the opportunity to register to vote on applying for a driver’s license.

“Supervisors did not want their clerks making decisions on voting issues. They don’t see that as their job," von Spakovsky says. "So, when someone comes in to get a license, they just give them the option to register to vote.” 

Are secretary of state officials going to set up procedures to specifically prepare their clerks to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens?

Drivers ought to be licensed, but this bill should not pass without precautions necessary to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not given the opportunity to vote.