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Obama's immigration policy may hurt voting rights

President Barack Obama’s decision to grant temporary legal status to 6 million immigrants could end up haunting Democrats’ voter registration efforts, by fueling the Republican push for voter registration laws requiring proof of citizenship.

The Republican response to Obama’s move has thus far focused on rolling it back, via lawsuits and the budget process.

But down the road, especially if those strategies stall or backfire, Republicans may conclude that they can gain more political advantage by shifting the debate out of Washington.

Five states –- Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee –- already have laws requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship when registering.

In 2015, Republicans will control both the legislative and executive branches in 23 states, and Obama’s move on immigration may spur more into action.

In one stroke, they could achieve two goals: exacting revenge on Obama, whose Department of Justice has championed voting rights, while also hurting Democrats’ voter registration efforts in 2016.

Voters typically register by providing a driver's license or Social Security number.

Since noncitizen legal residents are eligible for such documentation –- which the Supreme Court affirmed this week -- Obama’s executive actions raise the possibility that more might illegally register to vote.

Of course, the vast majority of noncitizens don’t register to vote or cast ballots. The risk of getting caught (possible imprisonment and deportation) just isn't worth it.

But some small sliver of the population does, as comes to light now and then, possibly out of confusion about the law. “Noncitizen voting is a real, if small, problem,” election law expert Rick Hasen has written.

North Carolina recently conducted an audit of its voter rolls and found more than 1,400 possible noncitizens. More than 200 of them had voted (possibly legally), and 98 of them were registered even though they checked “No” when asked if they were U.S. citizens, because they signed the form attesting that they were.

This kind of sloppy record-keeping and lax registration requirements is one reason why Americans strongly favor laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls, and the specter of more noncitizen voters may lead Republicans to push for even tougher ID requirements.

Currently, even the states that have passed the strictest voter ID laws–- including Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Kansas –- allow voters to show some forms of ID that noncitizens can obtain, such as a military ID, a gun license, a government employee ID or a student ID.

Bringing a birth certificate to the polls is impractical, but driver's licenses and state ID cards could include citizenship status.

Republicans have long argued that ID laws are necessary to prevent voter impersonation, which is extremely rare. But they may begin shifting their focus to the need for better safeguards against non-citizen voting.

If they do, their rhetoric will undoubtedly veer into overblown and nativist claims. But Democrats should't dismiss this as another loony birther crusade.

The question of how to prevent noncitizen registration and voting is a legitimate one, but thus far Democrats have shown little interest in answering it.

Yet there are plenty of ways to use technology to improve ballot security, while also making it easier to vote.

For instance, now that nearly every state has a computerized database of registered voters, confirming someone’s citizenship should be relatively easy to do.

Data-sharing among state and federal agencies could solve much of the proof-of- citizenship problem without putting unnecessary burdens on eligible voters.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading voting-rights organization, has endorsed the idea of putting driver's license photos next to voters’ names in electronic polling books, obviating the need for voters to bring photo ID.

Since departments of motor vehicles also have data (though often out-of-date) on citizenship status, that could be shared, too.

States could also automatically enroll all eligible citizens (with an opt-out provision) after cross-checking tax, Social Security and driver data.

With the proper safeguards to prevent politically driven purges, this process would increase registration rates and allow states to check for voters who may be improperly enrolled.

These are promising ideas that deserve more state-level experimentation and require more federal cooperation. They may also be the only way to avoid increasingly strict registration and voting laws.

In fairness to Obama, Republicans would have continued to push for such laws even without a presidential provocation.

But he has given them ample new ammunition that may intensify their attacks and accelerate their victories.

Barry is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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