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Noncitizen Voting: The Missing Millions

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.

Read the Intro­duc­tion


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.

Noncit­izen Voting: The Miss­ing Millions by The Bren­nan Center for Justice