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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

California Won’t Register ‘Illegal’ Voters

Q: Is California planning to “automatically register illegal immigrants to vote”?

A: No. The headline making that claim is false and misrepresents the law in California.


It’s true that California has taken considerable steps to protect immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, a position that has continued to put the so-called “sanctuary state” at odds with the Trump administration. In fact, the tension between the state and federal government over immigration policies escalated this week when the Department of Justice sued California over state laws that it said were hampering federal immigration enforcement.

But what California hasn’t done, and isn’t planning to do: “Automatically Register Illegal Immigrants to Vote,” as one viral headline says.

The false story, on dangerous.com and circulating on Facebook in recent days, is the latest in a series of such claims, which misrepresent a law designed to increase voter registration among U.S. citizens in California. Users of the social media site flagged the story as potentially false and rightfully so.

California’s New Motor Voter Program, established through a law approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, is designed to increase voter turnout by automatically registering people to vote when they renew or obtain a new license, unless they opt out. The state followed Oregon’s lead, which also spurred several other states to pursue a similar approach to voter registration. As of February, nine states and the District of Columbia have approved such automatic voter registration laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. 

(Of note: A federal law enacted in 1993 already requires states to provide citizens with the opportunity to register to vote when they get a driver’s license; the California law creates a mechanism to do so by default.)

The same year that California approved the motor-voter program, it also began to allow some immigrants — including those living in the U.S. illegally — to obtain “AB 60” driver’s licenses. These special licenses are for those who are not U.S. citizens but who can establish California residency and meet other qualifications. (The IDs also explicitly state that they are not for federal purposes.)

The California law, however, limits automatic voter registration only to eligible voters, and state officials say they have mechanisms in place to enforce the law.

“We’ve built the protocols and the firewalls to not register people that aren’t eligible,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re going to keep those firewalls in place.”

Still, critics have argued that errors and poor coordination among agencies could result in some ineligible immigrants registering to vote and, potentially, could even lead to voter fraud.

As the April implementation of the state’s New Motor Voter Program nears, a number of online stories have distorted the facts — including the one on dangerous.com, which is owned and operated by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos’ media company, MILO Inc

Topped with its erroneous headline, the story makes a series of statements that conflate the motor-voter and AB 60 license programs. For example, the article cites the fact that nearly 1 million people have received AB 60 licenses — a figure that is accurate, a California DMV spokeswoman confirmed to us. The story then says: “The California Department of Motor Vehicles now will be required by law to forward the records of all licensed drivers to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office to be automatically registered to vote unless a driver purposefully opts out at the DMV.”

But that’s not how the process works for non-citizens.

All applicants for AB 60 licenses are required to visit a DMV office, or DMV Driver License Processing Center, and pass certain tests in order to complete the initial application — a process that does not allow them to register to vote.

“Undocumented Californians are not eligible to register to vote and [the] DMV has programming measures to prevent that from occurring,” Jessica Gonzalez, the California DMV spokeswoman, told us in an email. “One example is the technician is unable to enter information that would allow the undocumented customer to register. It is automatically greyed out and cannot be bypassed.”

Gonzalez added that holders of AB 60 licenses soon will be able to be renew online and by mail, but she said neither option would include voter registration capabilities or information.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to help identify and label false stories flagged by readers on the social media network.

Update, Aug. 28, 2019: In late 2018, the California Secretary of State’s office said roughly 1,500 people — including noncitizens — were erroneously registered to vote through the state’s motor-voter program. The office has said those registrations have since been cancelled, but this month it announced that six people who were erroneously registered “due to DMV errors” actually voted in the 2018 elections. Paula Valle, a spokeswoman for the office, told us none of the individuals wrongly registered were licensees under the AB-60 program, which allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain a license. 


About the National Voter Registration Act.” U.S. Department of Justice. 8 Aug 2015.

Automatic Voter Registration.” Brennan Center for Justice. 10 Feb 2018.

Bazile, Pawl. “California to Automatically Register Illegal Immigrants to Vote.” 22 Jan 2018.

California State Assembly. “AB-1461 Voter registration: California New Motor Voter Program.” 10 Oct 2015. 

Chokshi, Niraj. “Automatic Voter Registration a ‘Success’ in Oregon.” The New York Times. 2 Dec 2016.

DMV Begins Accepting Driver License Applications Under AB 60.” Office of Public Affairs, California Department of Motor Vehicles. 2 Jan 2015.

Gonzalez, Jessica. Spokeswoman, California Department of Motor Vehicles. Emails sent to FactCheck.org. 7 Mar 2018.

Llorente, Elizabeth. “California to auto-register drivers to vote, sparking fraud concerns.” Fox News. 23 Jan 2018.

Justice Department Files Preemption Lawsuit Against the State of California to Stop Interference with Federal Immigration Authorities.” U.S. Department of Justice. 7 Mar 2018.

Know Your Rights: California AB 60 Driver’s Licenses.” ACLU of Northern California. Accessed 7 Mar 2018.

Mason, Melanie. “Here’s how California’s new voter registration law will work.” The Los Angeles Times. 16 Oct 2015.

McGreevy, Patrick. “Gov. Brown approves automatic voter registration for Californians.” The Los Angeles Times. 10 Oct 2015.

Siders, David. “Brown signs ‘sanctuary state’ bill in California.” Politico.com. 5 Oct 2017.

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California will "automatically register illegal immigrants to vote.”
Monday, January 22, 2018