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Analysis

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.