Skip Navigation

Noncitizens Are Not Voting in Federal or State Elections — Here’s Why

States have multiple systems in place to deter noncitizen voting. Those who violate the law face prison time and deportation.

April 12, 2024

Imagine you’re an undocumented person living in the United States. You’ve come to this country seeking a better life for you and your family. Or maybe your parents brought you here seeking the same when you were a child. You spend your life living in very real fear that you might be noticed by the government and be deported — perhaps to a country you’ve never known. There’s an election coming up, the outcome of which will surely impact your life. But you know you can’t vote because you’re not a citizen. 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?

Of course you wouldn’t. It’s a federal crime for noncitizens to vote in federal elections. It’s also a crime under every state’s laws. In fact, under federal law, you could face up to five years in prison simply for registering to vote. It’s also a deportable offense for noncitizens to register or vote. And sure, people make bad decisions and commit crimes all the time. But this one is different: by committing the crime, you create a government record of your having committed it. In fact, it’s the creation of the government record — the registration form or the ballot cast — that is the crime. So, you’ve not only exposed yourself to prison time and deportation, you’ve put yourself on the government’s radar, and you’ve handed the government the evidence it needs to put you in prison or deport you. All so you could cast one vote. Who would do such a thing?

The answer is: just about no one. Every legitimate study ever done on the question shows that voting by noncitizens in state and federal elections is vanishingly rare. That includes the Brennan Center’s own study of 42 jurisdictions in the 2016 general election. We 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. But you don’t have to take our word for it: the Cato Institute will also tell you, “Noncitizens don’t illegally vote in detectable numbers.”

Maybe you’re thinking that there are a bunch of noncitizens voting and getting away with it. Again, consider the fact that in order to commit these crimes you create a government record of having committed them. Indeed, anyone can look up your voter history on public voter files. And election officials conduct regular maintenance of these voter lists — in fact, they’re required to by federal law. Moreover, these are crimes that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers are instructed to look into during the naturalization process. So, if you ever try to become a citizen, you’ll be caught.

It should come as no surprise then that in the extremely rare instances when a noncitizen does cast a ballot, it’s usually an accident. Sadly, there have been times when noncitizens are misled by mistaken officials into thinking that they’re eligible — and they can face serious consequences even as a result of a mistake.

But noncitizen voting is simply not a widespread or even a significant occurrence. And it’s already illegal. We don’t need new laws to stop it from happening. If Congress wants to improve our electoral system, it should focus instead on guaranteeing and protecting the freedom to vote for eligible voters.