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Noncitizen Voting Is Already Illegal — and Vanishingly Rare

Trump and Speaker Johnson mislead again about election integrity.

April 17, 2024
Empty Voting Booths
David Dee Delgado/Getty

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The Brennan Center is part of a broad coalition tracking election-related disinformation. A big rumor we’ve identified rattling around the murkier regions of social media is that hordes of noncitizens are voting. 

That’s false. A lie. An urban myth. But it has also, somehow, become the glue that’s holding together disparate wings of the Republican Party. And it may be the basis for a major new piece of misguided legislation. 

On Friday, House Speaker Mike Johnson stood with former President Trump at a press conference at Mar-a-Lago. They decried what they claimed is a contagion of noncitizen voting. And they announced new legislation — details to come — that could lead to the purging of hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls. It’s the Big Lie put into legislative language. 

Yes, Johnson clings to his job only by a few ornery votes, but he is still the actual speaker of the actual House of Representatives.  And yes, Donald Trump held this press conference on the way to the first of his four scheduled criminal trials. 

Still, we have to take this both literally and seriously. Never before in American history has a sitting speaker of the House done so much to denigrate the integrity of American elections. 

For starters, let’s say it as clearly as possible: it is already illegal for noncitizens to vote. They are prohibited from voting in federal elections and state elections in every state. It is very, very illegal. There are strong penalties in the law. And states have strong systems in place to ensure that noncitizens don’t vote — whether on purpose or, as may be more likely, because they are misinformed about their eligibility. 

Those existing legal protections are one reason why, as research from the Brennan Center and numerous other experts confirm, voting by noncitizens is vanishingly rare. In 2017, my colleagues Myrna Pérez (now a federal appeals court judge) and Douglas Keith conducted an exhaustive study of 42 jurisdictions in the 2016 general election. They found that “election officials in those places, who oversaw the tabulation of 23.5 million votes, referred only an estimated 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting for further investigation or prosecution. In other words, even suspected — not proven — noncitizen votes accounted for just 0.0001 percent of the votes cast.” 

Don’t take our word for it. The libertarian Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers, confirms:  “Noncitizens Don’t Illegally Vote in Detectable Numbers.” 

That makes sense. As my colleague Sean Morales-Doyle asks, “Would you risk everything — your freedom, your life in the United States, your ability to be near your family — just to cast a single ballot?” 

All of which makes what we know about the proposed legislation that much more appalling. 

Johnson said the plan was to require Americans to show proof of citizenship to register to vote. In practice, this means that voters would have to produce a birth certificate or a passport to register. But there are millions of American citizens who are eligible to vote who don’t have ready access to those documents. (This includes Republicans as well as Democrats, it’s worth noting. Though not surprisingly, these restrictions would disproportionately affect poorer citizens, women, and likely voters of color.) 

It would be DOA in the Senate, for now, so the goal is not to write this dreadful idea into law. Rather, it is to set the stage for election denial should Trump lose the election later this year. After all, in 2016, Trump claimed he had really won the popular vote if you “deduct” three to five million “illegal” voters. In 2020, of course, he insisted falsely that the election was stolen. Now he is laying down that predicate again — this time, aided by a constitutional officer who first worked with the defeated president as an election denier in 2020. 

The lie about noncitizen voting is also a distraction, an attempt to shift the terms of the campaign away from real issues and real challenges. It should be rejected, not just by Congress, but by every journalist and citizen. It’s a cynical untruth, and it should be chased from the public square.