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PolitiFact Florida: Sen. Alan Hays says proof of citizenship isn't necessary to register to vote

State Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, ignited a firestorm of criticism when he said congressional districts should not be drawn to benefit potentially illegal Hispanic immigrants and that the state should first check their citizenship.

"We all know there are many Hispanic speaking people in Florida that are not legal, and I just don't think that it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow," Hays said late last month at a meeting of the Senate Reapportionment Committee.

"If we know registered voters are people who have proven their citizenship then that's a completely different story, but I'm not aware of any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote."

At PolitiFact Florida, we decided to check Hays' claim that you don't need to prove that you're a citizen in order to cast a ballot.

First, some context: Reapportionment is a once-in-a-decade process that divides the U.S. House's 435 seats among the states based on the results of the U.S. census, and some people are talking about a proposal to draw a Hispanic-majority congressional district in Central Florida.

But the census attempts to include all people living in the United States, including illegal immigrants (and anyone else not eligible to vote).

Hays, then, was at least suggesting it was possible that many people living there might be doing so illegally and that they would be voting illegally.

Registering to vote

Floridians can register to vote in a variety of ways — but the most common registration method is at driver's license offices.

In 2010, more than 270,000 people registered to vote at driver's license offices.

And when drivers apply for a driver's license, they must provide proof that they are in the country legally. U.S. citizens could show a passport or a proper birth certificate to verify their citizenship. Immigrants who are not U.S. citizens would have to provide the proper visa.

Applicants who prove they are citizens are asked if they want to apply to register to vote, said Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The driver's license office then sends along that voter registration application to the secretary of state.

Applicants who are not citizens are not given the option to register to vote, Howard said.

What if someone walks into a supervisor of elections office and asks to register to vote?

In those cases, people registering to vote must sign an oath on a registration application attesting that they are qualified to vote and that all the information on the application is true.

The application includes a question: Are you a citizen of the United States? If you answer no, the form says "you cannot register to vote."

We asked state Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate if the state does anything to verify citizenship.

"The answer is no," he said. "The law doesn't require someone to provide proof of citizenship when they register. If they swear, attest and sign under oath that their information is accurate and that they are a citizen we will accept their voter registration."

However, a person who submits false voter registration information or votes knowing that he or she isn't qualified to vote can be charged with a third-degree felony. And individual supervisors of elections do have the ability to determine if an applicant is a U.S. citizen, Cate said.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho told us the idea that illegal residents are voting is "laughable it's so wrong."

"We are not seeing any problem with illegal citizens voting in the U.S. anywhere, not just in Tallahassee or Florida. It's a canard that illegal individuals are registering and voting. … Voting requires putting your name and address on an official document and that is not something undocumented individuals tend to do."

The local elections supervisor in Hays' own district, Lake County, sees it the same way.

"We've never had a problem with illegal voting in Lake County, no way,'' said supervisor Emogene W. Stegall.

Our ruling

Hays said that Florida doesn't require "any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote."

There is a kernel of truth here: According to the state Division of Elections, state law doesn't require new voter applicants to prove their citizenship in some physical sense. They simply must sign a sworn statement attesting that they meet the voting requirements — including being a citizen.

But there are a couple of critical caveats.

First, lying on a voter registration form about your citizenship status can lead to a felony conviction. Second, the most common way to register to vote in Florida is during the process of obtaining a driver's license. And during that process, people are asked to verify their citizenship.

Lastly, we have to consider the experiences of two supervisors of elections, who said there is no widespread problem of illegal immigrants registering to vote.

For those reasons, we rate this claim Mostly False.

This ruling has been edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

Proof of citizenship isn't necessary before you register to vote in Florida.

Sen. Alan Hays, Oct. 18, in a Senate committee meeting

The ruling

Politifact ruling: Mostly False
If you register to vote while getting a driver's license, you do have to show proof you're a U.S. citizen. If you register some other way, you still have to sign an oath affirming your citizenship status. We rate this claim Mostly False.

PolitiFact Florida: Sen. Alan Hays says proof of citizenship isn't necessary to register to vote 11/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2011 11:17am]

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