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Rensselaer County Officials To Share Voter Information With Feds

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin speaks out against the Green Light Bill in April 2019
Lucas Willard
Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin speaks out against the Green Light Bill in April 2019

Officials in Rensselaer County are combatting the recently signed Green Light Bill, a state law that allows undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for a driver’s license. The officials say they will provide voter registration data to federal immigration authorities.

As the debate over sanctuary city status continues in Troy, Rensselaer County’s largest community, county officials are taking action to combat the state’s Green Light Bill signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June.

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, County Clerk Frank Merola, and Board of Elections Commissioner Jason Schofield, all Republicans, announced on Thursday that the county would begin sharing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement the names and addresses of people who have registered to vote in the county through the Motor Voter program.

In a press release, McLaughlin called the information-sharing “a common sense initiative to combat the recent efforts by out of control liberals to circumvent federal law on immigration.”

Though he did not return a request for comment in time for broadcast, McLaughlin, who stood in opposition to the Green Light bill at an April press conference, has characterized it as a stunt by Democrats to gain undocumented immigrants’ political support.

“You want to know what it’s really all about? It’s about Democrat voters. This is what it’s really about.”

County Clerk Merola says under the Motor Voter program, anyone applying for a driver’s license is presented with a customer-facing device, a tablet, in which they are asked if they want to register to vote.

“Now the crazy part is that it even allows people who aren’t in the country as citizens the option to vote. So it gives them the option, they answer the questions. Again, it’s a customer-facing device so the clerk on our side of the counter does not have any idea what their answering to the questions. If they decide they want to register to vote, that information at the end of the day is all downloaded and sent to the county in which you reside,” said Merola.

With undocumented immigrants now able to apply for a driver’s license, Merola says he and the other officials want to use the federal government as a check to make sure those who request voter registration are legally able to vote.

“So the thought was, look it, let’s make sure we’re doing this and doing it correctly, that no one is slipping through the cracks – which they can do very easily – let’s pass that on to Homeland Security and let them double check to make sure these people are in the country legally,” said Merola.

But critics are unsure that can be done legally, including Sarah Rogerson, an immigration attorney and Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School, and a regular contributor to WAMC’s Roundtable panel.

“So it’s a manufactured crisis to score political points with the base in Rensselaer County that happens to be anti-immigrant,” said Rogerson.

Rogerson, who says voter fraud is exceedingly rare, points to protections in the text of the Green Light Bill that protect immigrants from federal immigration inquiries.

A portion of the law reads:

Except as required for the commissioner to issue or renew a driver's license or learner's permit that meets federal standards for identification, the commissioner, and any agent or employee of the commissioner, shall not disclose or make accessible in any manner records or information that he or she maintains, to any agency that primarily enforces immigration law or to any employee or agent of such agency, unless the commissioner is presented with a lawful court order or judicial warrant signed by a judge appointed pursuant to article III of the United States constitution. Upon receiving a request for such records or information from an agency that primarily enforces immigration law, the commissioner shall, no later than three days after such request, notify the individual about whom such information was requested, informing such individual of the request and the identity of the agency that made such request.

Rensselaer County does participate in a so-called 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, which allows certain staff inside the county jail to act on behalf of federal immigration officers in cases involving detained individuals.

Rogerson says the actions to provide federal officials with Motor Voter data falls outside the agreement.

Governor Cuomo had expressed concerns regarding the feds accessing the information before agreeing to a final version of the bill. He called it a “legally difficult issue” while speaking with WAMC’s Alan Chartock on the Roundtable on June 24th.

“The question would be, if you have undocumented people signed up on the DMV database and the federal government sends us subpoenas saying we want the DMV database for law enforcement purposes, can we hold it from them or can they use it to actually find and deport people? And that question is going to have to be settled in court…”

Rogerson anticipates that the State of New York would seek a legal injunction restricting county officials from handing over Motor Voter information.

“I expect that’s a possible legal outcome and I would anticipate that would happen fairly quickly if the state government believes that there is grounds to do so,” said Rogerson.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman released a statement Friday afternoon regarding the officials' pledge to supply voter information to the federal government, saying:

“This move is a sad attempt at voter intimidation, pure and simple. Fanciful concerns about voter fraud are a well-worn ploy used to scare people away from the ballot. In the quarter century since the Motor Voter Law was instituted, hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers have registered for driver’s licenses with no concerns about inadvertent voter registration. The Green Light Bill is good for Rensselaer’s economy, road safety, and its residents.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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