So who is likely to believe him?
The answer: Americans who are hostile toward nonwhite immigrants. That hostility strongly influences estimates of how frequently voter fraud occurs.
Here’s how we did our research
In a national survey of 1,000 adult Americans through the 2015 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), we asked people to estimate how often voter fraud occurs. Like other researchers, we define voter fraud perceptions as how much people think that U.S. elections include noncitizen voting, voting more than once, and voting while pretending to be someone else.
The survey was conducted several months after Trump began his presidential campaign and after he began making voter fraud allegations. We also measured respondents’ resentment of immigrants. In this study, we followed the lead of other researchers who have measured immigrant resentment as believing that immigrants increase crime, reduce the use of English, dampen U.S. citizens’ political influence, and do not deserve any more special treatment or favors from government.
Here’s what we found
A large proportion of American voters who hold anti-immigrant attitudes also believe that voter fraud occurs frequently in U.S. elections. Similar to what we find in our 2014 study, resenting immigrants is the strongest predictor of believing in rampant voter fraud, even after controlling for conventional political dispositions and socioeconomic characteristics.
Resentment toward immigrants isn’t the only factor associated with believing in voter fraud. Also in the constellation are support for Trump, distrust of government, resenting blacks, and partisanship. However, they are all weaker at predicting belief in voter fraud than resentment toward immigrants.
That might be because there’s been so much recent rhetoric — not just from Trump and his team, but from a wide range of figures — discussing voter fraud as involving immigrants breaking the law. That includes:
- Unsubstantiated allegations that the 9/11 hijackers were registered to vote and could have voted in U.S. elections;
- Former Arizona attorney general Tom Horne accusing illegal immigrants of diluting U.S. citizens’ vote;
- Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s 2015 congressional testimony that claimed increasing illegal immigration will result in a large number of additional aliens registering to vote;
- Florida Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio defending their statewide effort to purge immigrants from the state’s voting rolls before the 2012 election;
- Former Georgia member of Congress Paul Broun asserting that Democrats need illegal aliens to win in Georgia.
Which immigrants are resented?
As Trump continues to publicly claim that millions of illegal immigrant voters cost him the popular vote, it raises another empirical question: Do people who believe there’s a lot of voter fraud have negative attitudes toward particular immigrant groups? To answer this question, we experimented with using different descriptions of immigrant groups in a survey module of 1,000 respondents in the 2014 CCES.
We asked all respondents to use a thermometer rating to indicate how cold (0) or warm (100) they feel about Irish immigrants. Then, respondents were randomly assigned the same question, but rating African, Chinese or Mexican immigrants. Measuring attitudes toward Irish immigrants gave us a useful baseline against which to compare attitudes toward other immigrant groups.
We found that feelings toward Irish immigrants do not affect a person’s beliefs about voter fraud. But people with colder feelings toward the other three groups are more inclined to think that voter fraud occurs very frequently. That’s especially true among people with less receptive views toward illegal immigrants, specifically Mexicans.
Here’s what this suggests. Republican elites are tapping into the growing U.S. anger toward immigrants — and are deploying that as a reason to restrict voting. Tightened voting laws depresses turnout among voters of color, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Immigrants have become easy targets. Strategic politicians appear to be using antagonism toward them to craft policies that will help them get broad public support to achieve their own political goals. Proponents of voter identification requirements and other limitations on voting rights will likely exploit growing U.S. ethnocentrism to get those new rules through.
Adriano Udani is assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis with a joint appointment in the public policy administration program. Follow him on Twitter @adrianoudani.
David Kimball is professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @kimballdc.