How Sinclair anchor Jan Jeffcoat let a Republican lawmaker lie about NYC's new voting law

A Republican lawmaker who appeared on Sinclair Broadcast Group’s misinformation-laden morning news program The National Desk told several lies about a recent New York City law which allows noncitizens with legal residency or work authorization to vote in municipal elections. Anchor Jan Jeffcoat failed to correct these lies, even though other Sinclair reporters accurately reported on the law.

On January 9, the New York City law took effect, which allows more than 800,000 lawful permanent residents and other noncitizens with authorization to work in the U.S. to vote in city elections, but not statewide or federal elections. A July 2021 article from Pew Trusts explained that similar laws exist in other cities, and date back to the founding of the United States:

The movement to let all adults vote in local elections hasn’t had widespread success in modern times. Until lately, just San Francisco and nine Maryland cities have allowed noncitizens to vote in local or school board elections.

From the founding of the country until 1926, 40 states at various points allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state and federal elections, said Ron Hayduk, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, who has written about this issue. Noncitizens could not only vote, but also hold office.

But that right has been stripped at different points in American history. From the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the rise of nativism after World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment led to the rolling back of these voting rights by legislatures in most states, he said.

A January 12 evening news report from Sinclair national correspondent Ahtra Elnashar accurately reported these details about the New York City law:

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Citation From a Sinclair national segment during the January 12, 2022, edition of WCIV's ABC 4 News @ 5

TESSA SPENCER (ABC 4 NEWS ANCHOR): This week in New York City, a law goes into effect that allows about 800,000 people who have documentation but are not citizens to vote in local elections. It’s not the first city to do this, but Republicans are trying to make sure it's the last. Ahtra Elnashar has a closer look from Washington.

AHTRA ELNASHAR (SINCLAIR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT): Many in New York City celebrating a major expansion of the electorate. 

ELNASHAR: Noncitizens who’ve been lawful permanent residents in the city for at least 30 days and people authorized to work, like Dreamers, will be able to vote in municipal races like city council, mayor, comptroller, and ballot initiatives. The law does not apply to statewide or federal elections. 

Similar laws have already been passed in San Francisco as well as several municipalities in Vermont and Maryland. Some in New York City were hesitant to get on board. Mayor Eric Adams voiced concerns about a person only needing to be a lawful resident for 30 days, but in the end, did not block the law.

ELNASHAR: Time will tell if this is part of a bigger trend in 2022. Proposals to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections have also been introduced in Washington, D.C. and Illinois in the past year. And according to Ballotpedia, only two state constitutions, Arizona's and North Dakota's, explicitly say that only citizens can vote.

SPENCER: And we want to hear from you tonight. Our question of the day: Should undocumented immigrants have the right to vote?

Even though the segment correctly explained that this right to vote is only being extended to New York City residents with legal authorization, it was followed by a corporate Sinclair “question of the day” which pushed the false suggestion that undocumented immigrants would be allowed to vote.

The National Desk’s nighttime edition on January 13 also clearly explained that New York City’s new law applied only to city elections and for legally authorized immigrants, and was not the first law of its kind around the country:

MEAGAN O’HALLORAN (ANCHOR): The president's push for new voting legislation is likely over after two Democratic senators said they will not support getting rid of the Senate filibuster. Meantime, New York City is adjusting its elections, allowing people to vote who are not U.S. citizens. Tonight, our fact-check team breaks down exactly what's happened – happening in the Big Apple, and where else you may see these laws take place. 

RYAN SMITH (CORRESPONDENT): From federal, state, and to local elections, the voting process is under a microscope right now. Recently, New York City taking center stage in this fiery debate over giving noncitizens the ability to vote in local races. So tonight, the fact check team joining me here, our investigative producers Janae and John. And John, we first start with you with a deeper look into what exactly this new law offers some of these residents. 

JOHN SEWARD (INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER): Well the New York City Council specifically points out this would allow green card holders and those with work visas to vote: people who are here legally. I want to make something clear here: It would not allow anyone illegally living in New York City to vote. Around 1.3 million people in New York City are noncitizens, but that doesn't mean a million new voters. It's closer to 800,000 people who are there legally, which means around 10% of the city's population who couldn't vote before would now be able to. They still have to qualify under other election laws though, like how long they’ve lived there, not being registered anywhere else, and also having no felony record. And I do want to give some context here, New York’s elections suffer from some pretty bad voter turnout. Less than a quarter of the city’s voters showed up for the mayor's race last year, the lowest voter turnout of America's top five largest cities. So while it qualifies more people, we don't know yet what the impact will be at the voting booth.

JANAE BOWENS (INVESTIGATIVE PRODUCER): And this isn't just in New York. In San Francisco, noncitizens can vote in school board elections. Now to qualify, you can't be in prison for a felony, and you must be parents, legal guardians, or legal caregivers of children under the age of 19. In two cities in Vermont, noncitizens can vote in local elections if they are in the U.S. legally. Maryland has more than 10 cities with similar laws.

But on the morning of January 12, National Desk anchor Jan Jeffcoat allowed Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) to lie about New York City’s new law. He lied that the law allowed people “in our country illegally” to vote, did not make clear it only applied to city elections, and falsely claimed it was the first example of noncitizen voting in U.S. history:

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Citation From the January 12, 2022, edition of Sinclair Broadcast Group's The National Desk

REP. BYRON DONALDS (R-FL): Look at what New York is trying to do right now. New York is trying to allow noncitizens to be able to vote. That’s not just the first time ever in our country, that will be the first time in virtually any country. It is only for citizens the ability to vote. The liberal Democrats in New York want to completely get rid of that and allow anybody to vote, whether they’re a citizen, or noncitizen, or in our country illegally. It’s outrageous.

JAN JEFFCOAT (ANCHOR): So why do you believe Democrat-run cities right now are open to allowing noncitizens to vote while also fighting for what they say is voting rights for Americans?

DONALDS: Well because what they want to do is they want to make sure they maintain power. It’s — a lot of these things are not very complicated; they’re quite simple. They know that if they just start giving out benefits, giving out rights, it makes people more – it gives them more propensity to vote for them regardless of the outcome of their policies, the content of their ideas, or frankly if they're even competent or not in doing their jobs. So these are sick, cynical political ploys. They're not in the best interests of our cities. They’re not in the best interests of our country.

Instead of correcting Donalds’ lies, Jeffcoat moved on to discussing President Joe Biden’s speech on voting rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Even though the correct information about the law should have easily been accessible for her, Jeffcoat chose to let the lies pass unchallenged, deliberately misinforming the Sinclair show’s audience.

A map of the United States showing Sinclair-owned TV stations that air The National Desk

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters