Thousands of Non-Citizen Voters? It’s Déjà Vu in Michigan

If Michigan's secretary of state is truly concerned about voters and protecting democracy, she needs to stop playing games, and start ensuring free, fair and accessible elections.

October 2, 2012

Michigan’s Secretary of State is joining a growing trend among state elections officials: Declare that thousands of non-citizens are registered to vote and then use those allegations to justify efforts that confuse, intimidate, and in some cases purge eligible voters on the eve of the election. But similar claims about ineligible voters in Florida and Colorado were debunked within a matter of weeks after being publicly disclosed. So why is Sec. Ruth Johnson jumping on the bandwagon, saying there are 4,000 non-citizens registered to vote? Is there something different about Michigan? Almost certainly not.

To quickly recap: In Florida it was initially asserted that as many as 180,000 potential non-citizens were registered to vote. Claims of registered non-citizens in Colorado were smaller, but still in the thousands — over 11,000. But as time went by, these lists decreased in size. In Florida, 180,000 morphed into 2,600 and later into 198, while in the Centennial state 11,000 shrunk to 3,900 and then to 141. The final numbers represent thousandths of a percent of all registered voters in each state.

But Michigan is a different state. Perhaps Johnson has learned from these fiascos and developed a more reliable and efficient system for identifying the extremely small percentage of non-citizens who may be on the rolls? Unfortunately, no.

The methodology Johnson used to obtain her numbers appears — at first blush — distinctly similar to that employed in Florida and Colorado. The Michigan Department of State, according to news reports, gleaned a list of 963 potential registered non-citizens by comparing immigration data captured from state drivers’ license and ID card applications to a list of registered voters. This is essentially the same approach that produced wildly inaccurate lists, shown to include hundreds of eligible citizens, in Florida and Colorado.

But Johnson went one step further, into arguably unknown territory, to arrive at the flimsy allegation that 4,000 non-citizens are registered to vote in Michigan. According to Johnson’s office, using census estimates that 305,000 noncitizens live in Michigan, it extrapolated that 5,064 of those noncitizens could be registered to vote, and “then lowered its estimate to 4,000 to account for children.” Unsurprisingly, the theory underlying these “extrapolated” and “estimated” numbers remains unexplained. To put it plainly, the use of flawed list-matching compounded by baseless estimation methods bodes poorly for the accuracy of the claims.

Johnson’s timing is also in question. She issued a press release with her “finding” of thousands of registered noncitizens just a day after being sued for placing a citizen checkbox on voter ballots. The case charges that Johnson lacks authority to include the checkbox because the governor vetoed the legislation after determining the checkbox was unnecessary and would only create confusion at the polls. Johnson, nonetheless, included it during the primary election and will do so again in November. She insists her estimate of thousands of improperly registered non-citizens proves the necessity of this voting deterrence measure.

Johnson has stated, “There are those who will try to minimize the importance of the numbers, but 4,000 represents real people, potentially voting in real elections, having a real, negative impact on our democracy.”

This statement raises an important question: If the numbers don’t add up, what is the “real” purpose of these “non-citizen” lists? Unfortunately, Johnson’s manipulation of questionable data to support her agenda confirms that, even as we move ever closer to Election Day, the partisan pre-election games have not ended. However, the successful public and legal pushback in Colorado and Florida demonstrate that voters won’t sit by quietly while political operatives manufacture justifications to violate the rules. If Johnson is truly concerned about voters and protecting democracy, she needs to stop playing games, and start ensuring free, fair and accessible elections.