Noncitizen voting in the 2016 election was exceedingly rare, according to this new analysis of information from local election administrators. It debunks President Trump’s claims that millions improperly voted in November.
In 2016, for the first time, presidential politics was roiled by claims of widespread illegal voting. In the weeks after the election, the claims continued. President-elect Trump insisted, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." On that same day, four hours later, he added, “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California — so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias — big problem!” After his inauguration, the claims escalated. “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” he declared.
As time passed, Trump’s claim grew more specific and more exaggerated. On Feb. 9th, he told a group of 10 Senators that ineligible persons had voted in droves, and that they had been driven in buses by the thousands from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended and reiterated the claims of voting by noncitizens. Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller toured the Sunday morning news interview shows to defend the claim. The White House asserted that these claims required an investigation, to be led by Vice President Mike Pence. In a March 22nd interview with TIME, the president said that he believes he will be proven right and that he is moving forward with the investigative committee. In late April, Spicer told CNN that he expects news on the voter fraud investigation in the “next week or two,” and that Pence will still be “very involved.”
Are the president’s claims plausible? The Brennan Center reached out systematically to those who would know best: the local officials who actually ran the election in 2016. These officials are in the best position to detect improper voting — by noncitizens or any other kind. To make sure we were speaking to the right individuals, this study relies on interviews with officials who ran the elections in jurisdictions (towns, cities, or counties) nationwide with the highest share of noncitizen residents, and those in states identified by Trump as the locus of supposed misconduct. We interviewed a total of 44 administrators representing 42 jurisdictions in twelve states, including officials in 8 of the 10 jurisdictions with the largest populations of noncitizens nationally.
Our nationwide study of noncitizen or fraudulent voting in 2016 from the perspective of local election officials found:
- In the jurisdictions we studied, very few noncitizens voted in the 2016 election. Across 42 jurisdictions, election officials who oversaw the tabulation of 23.5 million votes in the 2016 general election referred only an estimated 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting for further investigation or prosecution. In other words, improper noncitizen votes accounted for 0.0001 percent of the 2016 votes in those jurisdictions.
- Forty of the jurisdictions — all but two of the 42 we studied — reported no known incidents of noncitizen voting in 2016. All of the officials we spoke with said that the incidence of noncitizen voting in prior years was not significantly greater than in 2016.
- In the ten counties with the largest populations of noncitizens in 2016, only one reported any instances of noncitizen voting, consisting of fewer than 10 votes, and New York City, home to two of the counties, declined to provide any information.
- In California, Virginia and New Hampshire — the states where Trump claimed the problem of noncitizen voting was especially acute — no official we spoke with identified an incident of noncitizen voting in 2016.
The absence of fraud reinforces a wide consensus among scholars, journalists and election administrators: voter fraud of any kind, including noncitizen voting, is rare.
Two features of this study stand out.
It is the first analysis to look at voting from the perspective of local officials in 2016 — the year that Trump claimed was marred by widespread illegal voting.
Why speak with local officials? In the United States, elections are administered within local jurisdictions — counties, cities, and townships. These bodies and their officials run elections, process registration applications, and directly deal with voters. To be sure, local elections officials may not be aware of every incident of ineligible voting, and the tools at their disposal are imperfect, but they remain well-positioned to account for what is happening in the area they oversee.
Second, this study casts a wider net than studies focusing on prosecutions or convictions. It identifies both those who voted improperly by mistake, and those who did so with malicious intent. We asked administrators both the number of incidents of noncitizen voting they referred for prosecution or further investigation, and the number of suspected incidents they encountered but did not refer in 2016. In all but two of 42 possible jurisdictions, the answers to both questions were zero. Some who claim widespread misconduct insist that, because prosecution is hard, there is likely a much wider pool of people who were caught voting improperly, but who simply were not prosecuted. This study finds that both the number of people referred for prosecution and the number of people merely suspected of improper voting are very small.