Jesse Richman and David Earnest’s recent piece in the Monkey Cage positing that non-citizens not only vote in federal elections in the United States but might actually determine the outcome of U.S. Senate races next week has, not surprisingly, drawn a considerable amount of scrutiny. The methodological critiques of John Ahlquist, Scott Gehlbach and Michael Tesler are spot-on. The analysis of Richman and Earnest tells us little about the political behavior of non-citizen immigrants in the United States. Unfortunately, it seems instead a lesson in how easy it is to activate ideological constituencies across the Internet.

Rather than add to the methodological criticism, we offer here some findings from the 2012 Latino Immigrant National Election Study (LINES), a nationally representative survey of immigrants from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America that we conducted during the last presidential election.

About 60 percent of the respondents in the LINES sample were non-citizens, a percentage that is in keeping with census data estimates. Under U.S. electoral law, foreign nationals – i.e., non-citizens without a green card to indicate legal permanent residency – are prohibited from spending funds in connection with any federal, state or local election in the United States. A non-citizen who unlawfully makes such a contribution is subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

If fairly large numbers of non-citizens cast ballots illegally in American elections, as Richman and Earnest allege, then we might also observe a sizable number of unlawful campaign contributions. After all, turning out to vote and making political donations, while distinct modes of participation, are correlated. And even immigrants who are employed in low-wage positions contribute funds to religious organizations, neighborhood associations and many other groups. Do non-citizens who do not carry a green card contribute as well to political campaigns in violation of U.S. electoral laws?

Exactly how many non-citizens engage in such law-breaking is ultimately unknowable, but the results from the LINES investigation are reassuring. As the table below shows, the number of foreign-born Latinos without a Green Card who reported making a campaign contribution in 2012 is vanishingly small. Indeed, in our sample only three non-citizen respondents claimed to have donated, and this result is just as likely to be a case of misunderstanding the question and over-reporting political participation, interpreting the question as asking about their country of origin rather than the United States, or simply a coding error. For comparison, we present political contribution rates for Latino green card holders, naturalized Latino immigrants, and the U.S.-born public at large. As one might expect, the percentage of donors in these latter groups is higher, though the numbers are not huge.

Self-reported financial contributions to candidates running in the 2012 U.S. elections
US-Born Citizens (2012 ANES) Naturalized Latino Immigrants
(2012 LINES)
Latino Non-Citizens, Green Card Holders
(2012 LINES)
Latino Non-Citizens, No Green Card
(2012 LINES)
Did Not Contribute 4,475 (88.8%) 308 (94.2%) 134 (98.5%) 345 (99.1%)
Contributed 564 (11.2%) 19 (5.8%) 2 (1.5%) 3 (0.9%)
Total N 5,039 (100%) 327 (100%) 136 (100%) 348 (100%)

The LINES survey doesn’t give us additional leverage on the question of whether many non-citizens are illegally voting in American elections. But it does give us some confidence that Latino immigrants are faithfully adhering to laws that allow only citizens and legal permanent residents to participate by checkbook.  And it suggests that we should be very careful about interpreting survey results regarding whether non-citizens actually vote.

James A. McCann is a professor of political science at Purdue University and Michael Jones-Correa is a professor of government at Cornell University.  They are principal investigators of the Latino Immigrant National Election Study.