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Noncitizens can’t vote in federal elections. Trump and the GOP hope you don’t know that.

Noncitizens can't vote in federal elections. Trump and the GOP hope you don't know that.

Donald Trump helped save House Speaker Mike Johnson’s job Wednesday, and the Republican from Louisiana was eager to repay the favor to the former president.

That’s why Johnson made a big show on the Capitol steps Wednesday, surrounded by a crew of legislators and activists who tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election, to push new legislation to outlaw something that has already been illegal for nearly three decades.

Johnson and his allies claimed to be talking about “election integrity.” But what they really pitched was the “rigged election” disinformation that Trump has been hawking for almost eight years.

This is called a “messaging” bill – legislation with no chance of becoming law, written only to let politicians spin an issue into an advantage.

And this message mixes together Trump’s favorite culture-war tropes – xenophobia about immigration and an alternative-facts version of how he lost the popular vote in 2016 and the presidency in 2020.

Republicans want to solve nonexistent voting problem

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks about the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility (SAVE) Act during a news conference on May 8, 2024.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks about the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility (SAVE) Act during a news conference on May 8, 2024.

Johnson and his election-denying schemers were pushing the new Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act, which would require proof of U.S. citizenship to register to vote in federal elections.

Sounds harmless, right? That’s true if you don’t know much about voting rights issues.

But like laws that some states have enacted requiring voters to show identification at polling places, this act completely ignores the fact that not everyone who is eligible to vote has access to the documents needed to establish their identity.

Mail-in ballots targeted: Trump and the RNC want slow counting of mail ballots to target Biden supporters

Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the voting rights program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, told me it is “infinitesimally rare” for noncitizens to vote in federal elections because existing safeguards prevent that. This is what he thinks of the so-called SAVE Act.

“It is a policy that would immediately disenfranchise millions of eligible citizens of this country,” Morales-Doyle said, “because there are millions of eligible citizens in this country that do not have ready access to a passport or a certificate that has their current information on it.”

Speaker Johnson doesn’t like to be asked for proof

That’s the real motive here. Voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise voters who lean toward the Democratic Party. That’s no coincidence.

Morales-Doyle said it has been illegal since the 1920s for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. Congress in 1996 codified registering to vote for a federal election by a noncitizen as a federal crime eligible for prison time and fines. Then-President Bill Clinton signed that into law.

Johnson knows that. He used his Wednesday news conference as a naked political platform to push for Trump’s election in November, repeatedly citing the immigration crisis at the southern border while talking about alleged voter fraud.

He was immediately exasperated when pressed for proof. And then he just gave up the game.

“We all know intuitively, that a lot of illegals are voting in federal elections,” Johnson said. “But it’s not been something that is easily provable.”

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Let’s translate “intuitively” from Trump-speak to the real world: The House speaker was pushing a lie with the confidence that some people who hear it will be so desperate to believe it that they will set aside logic and ignore the truth.

Hey, it works with Trump and his supporters.

This new voting bill is part of a bigger Republican effort

Johnson was speaking just a few hours before a handful of Burn-It-All-Down Caucus members tried and failed to have him ousted in a motion to vacate. Those members are all dutiful Trump sycophants. But Trump didn’t back them on this. He stuck with Johnson, a handy mouthpiece for attacks on President Joe Biden about immigration.

That crisis came up over and over Wednesday in a thinly veiled nod to the racist “great replacement theory,” a popular but bogus claim that Democrats urge undocumented immigrants to come to America to become noncitizen voters in numbers that overwhelm white American voters.

Trump gag order: Trump is likely to violate his gag order again. Jail him if he does.

Johnson visited Trump in Florida last month to jointly spout that conspiracy theory. That’s when Trump put in motion the plan to save the speaker’s job.

Here’s what they didn’t discuss at Mar-a-Lago last month or the Capitol on Wednesday: Trump and Johnson in February persuaded Republicans in Congress to abandon a bipartisan deal on immigration reform crafted by Sen. James Lankford, a conservative from Oklahoma.

Trump’s reasoning – if you can call it that – was that he didn’t want Biden to score a legislative win in an election year on an issue that Trump could keep criticizing him about.

There is bipartisan agreement that voter fraud isn’t a thing

Every state has its own laws on how elections are conducted. Federal law allows states to pass legislation allowing noncitizens living here legally to vote in limited instances only in local elections. Laws like that exist now in 12 states and Washington, D.C.

There have long been unsubstantiated claims about noncitizens voting in federal elections. Morales-Doyle said that really took off after Trump, peeved that he lost the popular vote in 2016 while winning the presidency, claimed with zero proof that 3-5 million noncitizens voted against him.

Former President Donald Trump departs Manhattan Criminal Court on May 09, 2024, in New York City.Former President Donald Trump departs Manhattan Criminal Court on May 09, 2024, in New York City.

Former President Donald Trump departs Manhattan Criminal Court on May 09, 2024, in New York City.

“Trump using that as his excuse for losing the popular vote in 2016 kind of changed the conversation,” Morales-Doyle said. “And it’s not a coincidence that it’s popping up again right now when Trump is once again in campaign mode.”

Trump as president even created an “election integrity” commission to prove that. The commission produced nothing but hot air on the topic before being disbanded in 2018. It was all just more empty messaging.

The Brennan Center, which arguably leans progressive, and the Cato Institute, which clearly leans conservative, have both studied noncitizen voting in federal elections and found it to be “vanishingly rare” and certainly not a factor that could “actually shift the outcome of elections.”

This bipartisan agreement shows that Trump and Johnson are pitching a solution in search of a problem, hoping that voters will just accept without much thought their shady politics on immigration and lies about elections. The more you know about all that, the less you will believe them.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Chris Brennan on X, formerly known as Twitter: @ByChrisBrennan

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump and Republicans are lying to you about noncitizens voting

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