Could control of the Senate in 2014 be decided by illegal votes cast by non-citizens? Some argue that incidents of voting by non-citizens are so rare as to be inconsequential, with efforts to block fraud a screen for an agenda to prevent poor and minority voters from exercising the franchise, while others define such incidents as a threat to democracy itself. Both sides depend more heavily on anecdotes than data.
In a forthcoming article in the journal Electoral Studies, we bring real data from big social science survey datasets to bear on the question of whether, to what extent, and for whom non-citizens vote in U.S. elections. Most non-citizens do not register, let alone vote. But enough do that their participation can change the outcome of close races.
Our data comes from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Its large number of observations (32,800 in 2008 and 55,400 in 2010) provide sufficient samples of the non-immigrant sub-population, with 339 non-citizen respondents in 2008 and 489 in 2010. For the 2008 CCES, we also attempted to match respondents to voter files so that we could verify whether they actually voted.
How many non-citizens participate in U.S. elections? More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.
|Estimated Voter Turnout by Non-Citizens|
|Self reported and/or verified||38 (11.3%)||13 (3.5%)|
|Self reported and verified||5 (1.5%)||N.A.|
|Adjusted estimate||21 (6.4%)||8 (2.2%)|
Because non-citizens tended to favor Democrats (Obama won more than 80 percent of the votes of non-citizens in the 2008 CCES sample), we find that this participation was large enough to plausibly account for Democratic victories in a few close elections. Non-citizen votes could have given Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health-care reform and other Obama administration priorities in the 111th Congress. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) won election in 2008 with a victory margin of 312 votes. Votes cast by just 0.65 percent of Minnesota non-citizens could account for this margin. It is also possible that non-citizen votes were responsible for Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina. Obama won the state by 14,177 votes, so a turnout by 5.1 percent of North Carolina’s adult non-citizens would have provided this victory margin.
We also find that one of the favorite policies advocated by conservatives to prevent voter fraud appears strikingly ineffective. Nearly three quarters of the non-citizens who indicated they were asked to provide photo identification at the polls claimed to have subsequently voted.
An alternative approach to reducing non-citizen turnout might emphasize public information. Unlike other populations, including naturalized citizens, education is not associated with higher participation among non-citizens. In 2008, non-citizens with less than a college degree were significantly more likely to cast a validated vote, and no non-citizens with a college degree or higher cast a validated vote. This hints at a link between non-citizen voting and lack of awareness about legal barriers.
There are obvious limitations to our research, which one should take account of when interpreting the results. Although the CCES sample is large, the non-citizen portion of the sample is modest, with the attendant uncertainty associated with sampling error. We analyze only 828 self-reported non-citizens. Self-reports of citizen status might also be a source of error, although the appendix of our paper shows that the racial, geographic, and attitudinal characteristics of non-citizens (and non-citizen voters) are consistent with their self-reported status.
Another possible limitation is the matching process conducted by Catalist to verify registration and turnout drops many non-citizen respondents who cannot be matched. Our adjusted estimate assumes the implication of a “registered” or “voted” response among those who Catalist could not match is the same as for those whom it could. If one questions this assumption, one might focus only on those non-citizens with a reported and validated vote. This is the second line of the table.
Finally, extrapolation to specific state-level or district-level election outcomes is fraught with substantial uncertainty. It is obviously possible that non-citizens in California are more likely to vote than non-citizens in North Carolina, or vice versa. Thus, we are much more confident that non-citizen votes mattered for the Minnesota Senate race (a turnout of little more than one-tenth of our adjusted estimate is all that would be required) than that non-citizen votes changed the outcome in North Carolina.
Our research cannot answer whether the United States should move to legalize some electoral participation by non-citizens as many other countries do, and as some U.S. states did for more than 100 years, or find policies that more effectively restrict it. But this research should move that debate a step closer to a common set of facts.
Jesse Richman is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Old Dominion University, and Director of the ODU Social Science Research Center. David Earnest is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Old Dominion University, and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Letters.