Civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit on Friday to block an upstate New York county from sharing voter registration data with immigration enforcement officials.
The suit comes a little over a week after officials in Rensselaer County, which is near Albany, said they would immediately begin sharing the voter registration records of people who register to vote at the DMV with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a law in June allowing undocumented people to apply for driver’s licenses. County officials said they would share the the data so ICE could determine if anyone who registered to vote at the DMV was unlawfully in the United States.
Federal law requires that motor vehicle and other state agencies offer people the chance to register to vote. The law requires the agencies to spell out the qualifications for voting ― which include citizenship ― and people who register have to swear under penalty of perjury that they are eligible. That law also says that the state office at which someone registers to vote must remain confidential, so it is unclear how the county could legally disaggregate DMV registrations to share with ICE.
The lawsuit argues that Rensselaer County is discouraging lawful voters from registering to vote at the DMV. Sharing data with ICE, the suit says, will intimidate voters, particularly families with mixed immigration status. That kind of voter intimidation, the suit says, violates the Voting Rights Act. There is also no legitimate justification for sharing the voter data with ICE, the suit argues, and the policy violates the First and 14th Amendments by placing an undue burden on legitimate voters who want to register, especially those who live in immigrant communities.
Steve McLaughlin, the Rensselaer County executive and a Republican, said it was necessary to share voter registration information with ICE for immigration enforcement purposes.
“The sharing of this information with I.C.E. is a common sense initiative to combat the recent efforts by out of control liberals to circumvent federal law on immigration,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook last week. “I have stated on numerous occasions that many of these liberal proposals are not meant to be good public policy but a thinly veiled attempt to pad the voter rolls of Democrats.”
The complaint also notes that U.S. citizens may share the same name as people in ICE databases, subjecting them to needless investigation from law enforcement.
The suit was filed on behalf of Jenifer Benn, an eligible voter who has not yet registered in Rensselaer County and is now fearful of the consequences of doing so. A coalition of advocacy groups, including the New York Immigration Coalition, the New York chapter of Common Cause, Community Voices Heard, and Citizen Action of New York are also plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs are being represented by Protect Democracy and Demos. Protect Democracy helped represent voters in Virginia who accused a conservative group of voter intimidation when it posted their voter information online and wrongly accused them of being non-citizens. That lawsuit was settled and the group agreed to take down the information and apologize.