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Thu., Sept. 13, 2012

Editorial: Editorial: Requiring residency proof for licenses long overdue

Secretary of State Sam Reed wants to erase possible noncitizens from the state’s voter registration rolls by checking names against the Department of Homeland Security database of immigrants. But he can’t perform this simple housekeeping chore because Washington state doesn’t require proof of legal residency when doling out driver’s licenses and photo identifications.

Washington and New Mexico are the only states that forgo this requirement. As a result, our state became a magnet for illegal immigrants who couldn’t get driver’s licenses or state IDs elsewhere. Once such an ID is secured, it can be used to access various government benefits.

Reed is calling on the state Legislature to pass a law that would require proof of legal residency before a driver’s license is handed out. This change is long overdue.

The Homeland Security database, called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, is accessed by inputting the alien registration numbers assigned to legal noncitizens, such as workers with temporary visas, foreign students and holders of green cards. But since the state doesn’t request and record this information when a foreigner applies for a driver’s license, it doesn’t have an identifying number to plug into the federal database.

It’s important to note that this isn’t the same voter ID issue that has caused controversy in other states. Proof of residency would have to be produced only once, when a person applies for a driver’s license or state ID. This isn’t about requesting an ID every time a person votes. Our mail-in voting system would render such a requirement useless for most voters anyway.

However, it is important for the state to keep its voter registration database as accurate as possible so that ballots are only mailed to legal voters.

Many immigrants are in the country legally but cannot vote. Similarly, they aren’t eligible for certain government benefits. Recording their alien status on the state level would help enforce these restrictions.

Some civil liberties activists object, saying there isn’t much proof that illegal activity occurs in the first place.

But detection is practically impossible when IDs are handed out so cavalierly. This isn’t a ploy to suppress legal votes because the requests for alien registration numbers would be made of people who shouldn’t be voting anyway.

With those numbers on file, the state could check against the SAVE database to make sure foreigners haven’t registered to vote. Florida, Colorado and North Carolina already use SAVE this way.

Some lawmakers pushed such a bill last session, but it ultimately was rejected. They should try again. There’s no legitimate reason to object.

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