November 4, 2014

Can noncitizen votes decide U.S. elections?

By Todd F. Gaziano Chief of Legal Policy and Strategic Research, and Director, Center for the Separation of Powers

The heated debate over voter fraud and illegal voting has largely occurred without reliable data on the extent of the problem, but that may be changing in part with a new academic study on noncitizen voting that is receiving significant attention. Townhall published my take on some of its implications here. Among them, the study suggests that noncitizen voting may be much more common than most people suspect: about 6.8 percent (or higher) of noncitizens in the U.S. may have voted in 2008, and they could have changed the result in close elections based on survey results of who they favored. Those findings also raise questions other aspects of an electoral system that is essentially policed by the “honor system,” as Hans von Spakovsky has argued elsewhere.

Federal law prohibits voting by noncitizens in federal elections, and it also requires states to periodically review and purge ineligible voters from their voting rolls, including those who have moved or are not legally eligible to vote. Despite these mandates, federal officials have generally refused to provide the citizenship information or approvals, including from the federal Election Assistance Commission, that state election officials need to prevent or purge illegal registrants.

Voter fraud and illegal voting anywhere dilutes the lawful votes of all citizens. And a legitimate concern about voter fraud and illegal voting undermines the confidence citizens have in the integrity of the electoral process, particularly in close elections.

There are many common-sense reforms that American jurisdictions could adopt to significantly lessen the risk of illegal voting, including simple education efforts to inform noncitizens that they are not permitted to vote in federal and most state elections. Unfortunately, a potent mix of partisan suspicion and fear mongering has prevented many jurisdictions from adopting needed election integrity measures. The overwhelming majority of Americans from every demographic background favor strong voter-id laws and related protections, but politicians with genuine or imagined fears have blocked many sensible reforms.

Could the resulting illegal voting have tipped many elections? With razor-thin margins at almost every office level, it’s hard to deny that it is possible. We may never know for sure regarding past elections, but there is no need to remain ignorant. Liberals and conservatives sometimes criticize each other for ignoring the best scientific research. Government officials and scholars of all stripes should join forces to improve the science on illegal voting and adopt the obvious reforms that would tend to prevent more of it.

(Gaziano also is a former Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he previously assisted with the Commission’s statutory duty to study and report to Congress and the President on voter integrity and the enforcement of federal voting laws.)

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