Public Interest Legal Foundation Paper Appears to Undermine Its Own Central Claim

There are four important things to know about a recent Public Interest Legal Foundation paper on alleged non-citizens on voter rolls in New Jersey.

September 12, 2017

It is hard to take seriously a document on voting with a flying saucer on the cover. But, the Public Interest Legal Foundation asks us to do just that, putting out a paper on alleged non-citizens on the voter rolls in New Jersey and calling for extremist restrictions on the ability to register to vote. In reality, the paper undermines its own central claim and shows that our current registration system predominantly works. 

PILF claims in the paper that 616 alleged noncitizens have gotten on the New Jersey rolls, and to be very clear, some of the included examples involve a registration that happened in 2000 (approximately 17 years ago) and people who were removed from the rolls as long ago as 2011 (approximately six years ago). There are four important takeaways from the paper:

1. The system predominantly works. The paper shows that many of these alleged non-citizens are not scheming to get on our rolls and influence our elections. In fact, it is just the opposite. The paper claims that 76 percent of the non-citizens identified properly admitted their citizenship status at the outset, but were processed anyway by government officials. The paper also notes that 45 percent of the incidents derived from one county. That is a problem of election administration — requiring resources and training for government workers and streamlined registration processes minimizing areas of human error. The paper also shows that a large chunk of those alleged non-citizens who got on the rolls went to great lengths to try and get themselves removed once they learned they had been registered. This calls for greater education as to eligibility, but it nonetheless shows that noncitizens are not scheming to influence our elections. The paper does not make the case for laws and policies making it harder for eligible Americans to register, or inflammatory rhetoric directed at immigrants and non-citizens. 

2. Their numbers are small. Despite the sensationalist claims — and the unreasonable interpretation of numbers in their favor — the Public Interest Legal Foundation has shown that non-citizen registration is very, very rare and non-citizen voting is very, very, very rare. We’re talking a tiny fraction of a percent—even if one is unreasonably generous. Again, they claim to have found 616 non-citizens on the rolls in New Jersey. As noted above, the paper includes as examples registrations that occurred in 2000, and records that were removed as long ago as 2011. In 2016, there were almost 4 million ballots cast in New Jersey and the monthly reporting for September of 2017 shows that there are about 5.7 million registered voters. Even assuming that all those non-citizens were on the rolls NOW (which one cannot because the paper expressly includes people who were already removed), 616 would equal about .01 percent of those registered. More properly, that 616 should be assessed against every person registered in New Jersey since the Public Interest Legal Foundation’s earliest record of registration — at least the last 17 years and possibly earlier depending on the data used.

They offer no absolute numbers as to how many of these alleged non-citizens actually cast ballots, but instead claim 9 percent of those alleged non citizens “who self-reported” actually cast ballots.  But, it is not clear to the reader whether that is 9 percent of the total 616 individuals or 9 percent of the 115 individuals who themselves asked to be removed from the rolls. In either event, the number of voters turns out to be extremely small. If it is 55 (9 percent of 616), that would turn out to be about .001 percent of the votes cast in 2016, which again, is still a gross inflation because it includes registrations that occurred as early as 2000. If it is 9 percent of those 115 who contacted election officials asking for removal, we’re looking at about 10 folks, which would amount to about .0003 percent of those who voted in 2016, again a gross inflation.

3. The paper’s numbers are sloppy. According to the paper, the 616 number is built from a lot of sources, including 472 persons who either indicated citizenship or failed to indicate citizenship at all, and 115 people who asked election officials to get them off the rolls because they were non-citizens. The balance consists of persons who declined jury service allegedly on citizenship grounds (9), and others allegedly identified by Department of Homeland Security or US Citizenship and Immigration Services (20). Two of those sources typically artificially inflate the rates of non-citizens on the rolls. One comes from examining citizenship check boxes on the voter registration portion of drivers’ license applications. Election administrators, who have investigated allegations of non-citizen voting, report that sometimes eligible Americans check the wrong box for citizenship or do not check any box at all. This warrants a very careful look given the overwhelming majority of alleged cases that come from this source. The second is jury service records, which inquire as to American citizenship to see who is eligible to serve. Election administrators have reported that eligible Americans will even respond that they are not citizens to jury service questionnaires just to get out of jury duty. It’s behavior to be condemned and punished, certainly, but not evidence of fraud. While there were a small number of these persons referenced in the paper, any incorrect self-reporting would also artificially bump up the number of supposed non-citizens who are registered. 

4. They are manufacturing these claims because they want to amend the Motor Voter law. It is also hard to take seriously their professed sympathy for what they call “Motor Voter’s Victims.” Motor Voter is a nickname for the National Voter Registration Act, the law that requires not only state departments of motor vehicles, but, importantly, other social service agencies as well, to offer registration services to people who are seeking government services and benefits (like drivers’ licenses and food assistance).The law also allows community groups to go out into the streets, supermarkets, and other public places to register voters. The paper advocates amending the law so that no one can register without submitting documentary proof of citizenship. The Public Interest Legal Foundation knows what this will do —  make it impossible for community organizations to go into neighborhoods and effectively register people to vote because no one carries a birth certificate or passport with them, and further, no one is going to give sensitive information like that over to someone they don’t know registering voters. In their paper, the Public Interest Legal Foundation names people who were allegedly not citizens, got on the rolls, and asked their election administrators to remove them. The paper names their county. The paper provides the information as to whether that person seeks to become naturalized. The Public Interest Legal Foundation has doxed them for their cause, and purposely exposed these people to harassment and who knows what else. But, it is claiming Motor Voter is the one victimizing these non-citizens? 

No one should buy PILF’s feigned concerns for non-citizens, or their exaggerated claims. The public needs education as to eligibility. Election administrators need resources, training, and streamlined processes. No one needs a misleading paper that ultimately just shows what we already know — non citizen registration and voting are very rare occurrences.