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No, 1996 immigration law doesn’t grant voting rights to ‘illegal immigrants’ | Fact check

The claim: Bill Clinton signed 1996 law allowing ‘illegal immigrants’ to vote

A May 8 Instagram video (direct link, archive link) shows a man talking about a former president’s supposed changes to federal voting rules nearly 30 years ago.

“Did you know that under the current U.S. code, illegal immigrants are allowed to vote in U.S. elections?” the man says. “Yes, thanks to Bill Clinton, who signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.”

The post garnered more than 600 likes in four days. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson shared a similar version of the claim on Facebook and Instagram.

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Our rating: False

The law signed by Clinton explicitly forbids people who immigrated to the country illegally from voting in federal elections. Though an amended version of the law includes protections from fines and imprisonment for some people who vote illegally, the law still forbids noncitizens from voting in federal, state and most local elections.

Post misrepresents 1996 law

As the user said, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act was signed into law by Clinton in 1996. It furthered steps taken in former President Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 by strengthening immigration laws and enacting criminal penalties for people who enter the U.S. illegally and commit crimes.

The 1996 version of the law explicitly forbids “aliens” from voting in federal elections.

“It shall be unlawful for any alien to vote in any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing a candidate for the office of president, vice president, presidential elector, member of the Senate, member of the House of Representatives, delegate from the District of Columbia or resident commissioner, unless –” the law reads.

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The law goes on to list exceptions to the rule, describing specific cases where an “alien” is authorized to vote under a state or local ordinance, the election is partly held for some other purpose and the voting is held independently from any federal voting.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a professor at Harvard Law School, told USA TODAY that the law “certainly doesn’t allow aliens to vote in U.S. elections.”

“It does exactly the opposite, prohibiting aliens from voting in federal elections,” he said in an email. “The clauses after ‘unless’ just clarify that if a state or locality allows aliens to vote in nonfederal elections, and those are the only elections in which aliens vote, then there’s no violation of the law.”

Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and founding director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, told USA TODAY the post’s claim is “ridiculous” and “completely false.”

Noncitizens are not allowed to vote in federal, state or most local elections. Only Washington, D.C., and a handful of municipalities in Vermont, Maryland and California allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, according to Ballotpedia.

Fact check: Struck-down New York law allowing non-citizens to vote misrepresented online

Clinton’s immigration law was amended in 2000 to add exceptions to the criminal penalties, which include fines and imprisonment for up to a year. These exceptions include cases where both of the individual’s parents are or were U.S. citizens, the individual permanently resided in the U.S. before the age of 16 or the individual “reasonably believed” they were a citizen at the time of voting.

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This is the modern language included in the U.S. code.

Stephanopoulos told USA TODAY that though this clause means that no federal crime would be committed in these circumstances, the law still doesn’t permit people who immigrated to the country illegally to vote in federal or state elections.

“Note also that this federal law merely duplicates state law in every state, which also bars aliens from voting in state elections,” he said.

Hing told USA TODAY that though there is a set of guidelines one must follow to become a U.S. citizen, he had met many clients who were unaware of their citizenship status.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Nicholas Stephanopoulos, May 10, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Bill Hing, May 10, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Cornell Law School, Oct. 30, 2000, 18 U.S. Code § 611 – Voting by aliens
  • Cornell Law School, accessed May 10, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act
  • Congress.gov, Nov. 6, 1986, S.1200 – Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
  • GovInfo, March 20, 2012, PUBLIC LAW 104-208 – SEPT. 30, 1996
  • GovInfo, March 20, 2012, PUBLIC LAW 106-395 – OCT. 30, 2000
  • USA.gov, May 2, Who can and cannot vote
  • Ballotpedia, accessed May 13, Laws permitting noncitizens to vote in the United States

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