WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The nation's election boards have few controls that would prevent illegal immigrants from voting in federal, state or local elections, with many of them saying they operate under a patriotic cloak of trust that individuals casting ballots will conform to U.S. law.
Federal immigration officials estimate between 8 million and 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. With the limited restrictions on voting policies, some say that raises serious questions about the integrity of the U.S. voting system.
Three years after the country's most contentious presidential election -- inundated with hanging chad and butterfly ballots -- the sweeping reforms promised for the voting process in the 50 states and the District of Columbia have not been realized. Moreover, no security measures have been put in place to protect the veracity of elections.
The U.S. Constitution details how elections in the United States are to work. To hold office in the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, it requires an individual to reach at least age 25 or age 30, respectively, and be a citizen for at least seven years.
The Federal Election Commission, which oversees the financing of federal elections, does not have jurisdiction over how elections are carried out in the individual states.
"That's not the role of the FEC. It's probably enforced by the Department of Justice," said Peggy Sims, an FEC research specialist.
Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. The law makes non-citizens who knowingly cast a ballot in a federal or state election eligible for deportation. It is up to the state officials to ensure that those voting in federal, state and local contests are citizens.
A vote by an illegal immigrant brings in the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a newly formed arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It would be ICE's job to deport any non-citizen discovered casting a vote, whether they are legal or illegal. Marc Raimondi, an ICE spokesman, said the penalty for being in the country illegally would be deportation anyway.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, in Washington, is an organization that advocates reform of U.S. immigration policy. Dan Stein, FAIR's executive director, says the federal government and political parties have little interest in ensuring that illegal immigrants do not cast votes.
"It is one more factor that causes illegal immigration to jeopardize the integrity of the electoral process. (If) we count illegal aliens in the census and reapportion districts to include them and we allow people to vote illegally, we have dual nationality," Stein said.
"In a sense, it winds up diluting the votes. (But) it's not just a matter of diluting the votes. If a person's vote is offset by someone voting illegally, you also have this problem of entire states losing congressional seats. It jeopardizes the legitimacy of the whole system of representation in this country, potentially."
Stein contends that efforts to match names on voter registration lists with immigration lists have been confounded by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which threaten lawsuits about information sharing. Democrats, he said, insist it would chill voter participation.
Three years ago, when problems with hanging chad and butterfly ballots stalled a presidential election for 36 days, lawmakers in the nation's 50 states and in the District of Columbia promised sweeping reforms so that such a debacle would never occur again.
Those reforms have been somewhat stalled, either because of a lack of money or consensus on what should be changed. According to Electionline.org, a Web site produced by the non-profit Election Reform Information Project, problems with faulty voting machines remain a problem at polling sites around the country.
United Press International surveyed several states with large immigrant populations to determine their policies and controls for ensuring voters are legal citizens.
FAIR estimates there are as many as 3.4 million illegal immigrants living in California. Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for the state's board of elections told UPI that it has an "inherent assumption" that individuals who sign their names on voter registration cards are doing so legally.
"Also voter registration cards are clear on the top that you must be a citizen in order to register to vote," Carbaugh said, adding that they provide registration cards in seven different languages.
She also said poll workers do not check documents such as drivers' licenses or passports to verify citizenship or when voters show up at the polls.
"In the event that individuals are identified or suspicious or that complaints have been filed, we do investigate, to ensure that the voter registrant did so according to law," Carbaugh said. She could not say how often that has occurred.
Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the New York Board of Elections, said their voter registration card is an affidavit that has an individual swear that they are a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years of age, or face felony charges.
"Is there room for someone to lie and get by, sure," Daghlian said.
However, he pointed out that the new rules for the next general election will require potential voters who register by mail to provide their drivers license number and the last four digits of their Social Security number.
Stein says no one can say with any degree of certainty how often illegal immigrants vote, but that there are occasional fraud investigations. He pointed to the 1996 California race between former Rep. Robert Dornan and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, who defeated him by 985 votes.
In that race Dornan challenged the election results and set up a year-long battle over the validity of more than 700 votes, allegedly by illegal immigrants. A House committee voted to drop the investigation of Dornan's accusations, saying that while they had found evidence of illegal votes by non-citizens, it wasn't enough to affect the race.
Stein pointed to state drivers licenses as a problem. The so-called motor-voter program that allows individuals to register to vote when they obtain or renew their drivers licenses also opens the process to fraud. Some states do not require applicants to prove they are legal residents of the United States or citizens before they obtain a drivers license.
The problem has not entirely slipped past congressional radar.
Rep. Jeff Flake R-Ariz., introduced a bill that would bar federal agencies from accepting a state-issued drivers license unless the state has in effect a policy requiring presentation of acceptable forms of identification prior to issuance of the license.
"Acceptable forms of identification" would include a birth certificate, U.S. passport, a U.S. certificate of naturalization or U.S. certificate of citizenship.
Matthew Specht, an aide to Flake, said that Flake wanted to close the loophole opened when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2000. That law states that a voter should present to "the appropriate state or local election official a current and valid photo identification."
"There are some states like California that issue drivers licenses to undocumented citizens. That would be a case where you have a legal form of identification according to federal law ... for somebody who is not a citizen and should not be allowed to vote," Specht said.
Specht called state-issued drivers licenses the closest the United States has to a national ID card, a standard form of identification.