On May 27, 2021, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) releases a policy update regarding applicants’ registration to vote through a state’s department of motor vehicles (DMV) or other state benefit application process and the effects on an applicant’s good moral character (GMC).
Applicants for naturalization must demonstrate GMC during the required period of time immediately before filing and up to the time they take the Oath of Allegiance. The applicable period of time depends on the section of the statute under which the applicant is eligible to naturalize. In general, the statutory period for GMC for an applicant filing under the general naturalization provision starts 5 years prior to the date of filing. The statutory period starts 3 years prior to the date of filing for certain spouses of U.S. citizens. USCIS may find that certain applicants have not met GMC requirements if they have unlawfully registered to vote or voted unlawfully in the United States.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), often referred to as the “Motor Voter” law, directs states to provide eligible voters with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license or identification (ID) card at the state’s motor vehicle authority. Consequently, many states have incorporated voter registration into the application for a new or renewed driver’s license or state ID card, and unlawfully registering to vote or falsely claiming U.S. citizenship during this process can adversely impact an applicant’s GMC. The NVRA applies to 44 states. Certain states (Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) and territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands, American Samoa) are exempt from the NVRA. Many naturalization applicants have unknowingly registered to vote when they renew their ID or driver’s license.
USCIS seeks to clarify the following:
- USCIS will not penalize an applicant who unknowingly or unwilfully registers to vote.
- USCIS does not consider an applicant to have unlawfully registered to vote if the applicant did not complete or sign the voter registration (including electronic signature, if applicable) in the motor vehicle or other state benefit application.
- USCIS does not consider an applicant to have unlawfully claimed to be a U.S. citizen if the applicant did not affirmatively indicate that he or she is a U.S. citizen. However, if the applicant registered to vote, the applicant has the burden to prove that the registration form did not contain a question about whether the applicant is a U.S. citizen or that the applicant did not indicate, in response to the question, that he or she is a U.S. citizen.
- An applicant may be considered to have falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen for the purpose of registering to vote, and therefore may lack GMC because he or she committed an unlawful act in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1015(f), if the applicant knowingly answered “yes” to a question asking whether he or she was a U.S. citizen in order to register to vote. This may apply even if the applicant’s registration to vote was done simultaneously with the process of a driver’s license or ID card application, or an application for other state benefits.
When you renew your driver’s license, it’s always wise to read the forms before signing affirmatively.