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Expert Brief

Analysis: Noncitizen Voting is Vanishingly Rare

For years, the Brennan Center has collected research showing that voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. We elaborate on one subset of voter fraud claims – the allegation that ineligible noncitizens are voting in large numbers.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
Published: January 25, 2017

For years, the Bren­nan Center has collec­ted research show­ing that voter fraud is extraordin­ar­ily rare. Below is a review of the liter­at­ure on one subset of voter fraud claims – the alleg­a­tion that ineligible noncit­izens are voting in large numbers. For more recent work, see the Bren­nan Center’s report “Noncit­izen Voting: The Miss­ing Millions.”  

Compre­hens­ive Stud­ies Find Noncit­izen Voting is Vanish­ingly Rare

  • Rutgers Univer­sity polit­ical scient­ist Lorraine C. Minnite has stud­ied voter fraud alleg­a­tions for more than a decade. She has concluded that voter fraud, includ­ing noncit­izen voting, is “extremely rare.” In one analysis of the first three years of a Justice Depart­ment initi­at­ive to uncover voter fraud ending in 2005, she found that there were only 14 convic­tions of noncit­izens for voting.
  • In another study, Minnite examined all complaints of voter miscon­duct received by the Cali­for­nia and Oregon Secret­ar­ies of State for more than a decade. Cali­for­nia received a total of 28 complaints of noncit­izen voting, and Oregon, five. Out of that total, there were only four convic­tions.
  • In 2007, the Bren­nan Center for Justice conduc­ted a nation­wide survey of a decade of news accounts and other complaints of noncit­izen voting. The results showed that alleg­a­tions of noncit­izen voting that prove unfoun­ded are far more common than alleg­a­tions that turn out to be true. Some of the exag­ger­ated or base­less alleg­a­tions high­lighted in that study include: A 2005 invest­ig­a­tion into 1,668 Wash­ing­ton resid­ents with “foreign-sound­ing names” which turned up no noncit­izens; a 2000 invest­ig­a­tion into 553 Hawaii­ans alleged to be improp­erly registered noncit­izens, but none of whom had voted, and 2001 invest­ig­a­tion in Milwau­kee of 370,000 voting records that found four poten­tial instances of natur­al­ized persons voting before their natur­al­iz­a­tion date. Even if one accepts all of the alleg­a­tions of noncit­izen voting as true, noncit­izens voters would have accoun­ted for between .0002 percent and .017 percent of the votes in the relev­ant juris­dic­tion.

State Invest­ig­a­tions Uncover Almost No Instances of Noncit­izen Voting

  • A 2010 survey of Minnesota county attor­neys found that, in the 18 months follow­ing the 2008 elec­tion, only nine incid­ents of possible noncit­izen voting had been invest­ig­ated out of 2.9 million ballots cast. None of these nine incid­ents resul­ted in a convic­tion.
  • New Mexico’s Secret­ary of State reviewed that state’s list of 1.2 million voters in 2011. The Secret­ary of State’s office only referred nine indi­vidu­als to the Attor­ney General for invest­ig­a­tion about their citizen­ship status.
  • In a 2013 letter to the North Caro­lina General Assembly, the Exec­ut­ive Director of the Board of Elec­tions detailed every case of poten­tial voter fraud in the state from 2002 to 2012. In those years, the Board of Elec­tions referred 58 cases of poten­tial noncit­izen voting to prosec­utors for further invest­ig­a­tion. Consid­er­ing that 19.5 million votes were cast in that time and assum­ing every alleg­a­tion were true, noncit­izen votes would have amoun­ted to .0003 percent of the total.
  • In a check of the regis­tra­tion rolls in 2013 and 2015, Ohio Secret­ary of State’s concluded that 44 noncit­izens voted in at least one elec­tion dating back to 2000. By way of refer­ence, there were 3.26 million ballots cast in Ohio in 2015. “None of these affected the outcome of an elec­tion,” Ohio Secret­ary of State John Husted told The Colum­bus Dispatch.
  • Iowa spent $250,000 from 2012 to 2014 look­ing into poten­tial noncit­izen voters. They star­ted with 3,000 indi­vidu­als registered to vote who had at some point iden­ti­fied as noncit­izens. That led to invest­ig­a­tions of 147 indi­vidu­als who had cast ballots. After two years of invest­ig­a­tion, county attor­neys brought charges against just 10 alleged noncit­izens.

Nation­wide Surveys by Journ­al­ists Also Found That Noncit­izen Voting Is Prac­tic­ally Nonex­ist­ent

  • After the 2016 elec­tion, The New York Times surveyed elec­tion and law enforce­ment offi­cials in 49 states and the District of Columbia. They learned of two possible instances of noncit­izens voting – out of 137.7 million voters nation­wide.
  • The Wash­ing­ton Post also did a survey after the 2016 elec­tion. They compiled reports from the Nexis data­base. In all, the Post found four demon­strated cases of any type of voter fraud, and no instances of noncit­izens voting.
  • News21, an invest­ig­at­ive report­ing project based at Arizona State Univer­sity, reviewed all repor­ted instances of voter fraud from 2000 to 2012. They found 56 cases of alleged noncit­izen voting. Even assum­ing all of these alleg­a­tions are true, and all of these noncit­izens voted in 2016, it would total approx­im­ately .00004 percent of all ballots cast.    

Past Repres­ent­a­tions of Noncit­izen Voting By Partisan Offi­cials Have Been Disproved

  • In 2012, at the request of the Governor, Flor­id­a’s Secret­ary of State set out to purge the state’s voter rolls of noncit­izens. Out of 12 million registered, active voters, offi­cials claimed to have found 180,000 poten­tial noncit­izens. Yet after all the errors on that list were uncovered, only 85 names were removed from the rolls as alleged noncit­izens, and only one person was convicted of fraud.
  • In 2012, Michigan’s Secret­ary of State claimed that as many as 4,000 noncit­izens were registered to vote. In the end, only ten people were referred to the state attor­ney general for further invest­ig­a­tion because they had voted.
  • Also in 2012, Color­ado’s Secret­ary of State claimed that 11,805 noncit­izens were registered to vote. Ulti­mately the state iden­ti­fied just 35 indi­vidu­als on the rolls who were allegedly noncit­izens and had voted.

It is not surpris­ing that noncit­izen voting is rare. In addi­tion to massive fines and time in prison, a noncit­izen would risk deport­a­tion or derail­ing their natur­al­iz­a­tion process by voting. Moreover, many undoc­u­mented indi­vidu­als are reluct­ant to inter­act with govern­ment offi­cials.