Right after the election, most people in America saw or heard about this Tweet from then President elect Trump:
I had thought this was just random bluster (on Twitter????? Never!), but then someone sent me this article. Apparently that comment was presumably based on an actual study, and the study author is now giving interviews. It turns out he’s pretty unhappy with everyone….not just with Trump, but also with Trump’s opponents who claim that no non-citizens voted. So what did his study actually say? Let’s take a look!
Some background: The paper this is based on is called “Do Non-Citizens Vote in US Elections” by Richman et all and was published back in 2014. It took data from a YouGov survey and found that 6.4% of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2% voted in 2010. Non-citizenship status was based on self report, as was voting status, though the demographic data of participants was checked with that of their stated voting district to make sure the numbers at least made sense.
So what stood out here? A few things:
- The sample size While the initial survey of voters was pretty large (over 80,000 between the two years) the number of those identifying themselves as non-citizens was rather low: 339 and 489 for the two years. There were a total of 48 people who stated that they were not citizens and that they voted. As a reference, it seems there are about 20 million non-citizens currently residing in the US.
- People didn’t necessarily know they were voting illegally One of the interesting points made in the study was that some of this voting may be unintentional. If you are not a citizen, you are never allowed to vote in national elections even if you are a permanent resident/have a green card. The study authors wondered if some people didn’t know this, so they analyzed the education levels of those non-citizens who voted. It turns out non-citizens with less than a high school degree are more likely to vote than those with more education. This actually is the opposite trend seen among citizens AND naturalized citizens, suggesting that some of those voters have no idea what they’re doing is illegal.
- Voter ID checks are less effective than you might think If you’re first question up on reading #2 was “how could you just illegally vote and not know it?” you may be presuming your local polling place puts a little more in to screening people than they do. According to the participants in this study, not only were non-citizens allowed to register and cast a vote, but a decent number of them actually passed an ID check first. About a quarter of non-citizen voters said they were asked for ID prior to voting, and 2/3rds of those said they were then allowed to vote. I suspect this issue is that most polling places don’t actually have much to check their information against. Researching citizenship status would take time and money that many places just don’t have. Another interesting twist to this is that social desirability bias may kick in for those who don’t know voting is illegal. Voting is one of those things more people say they do than actually do, so if someone didn’t know they couldn’t legally vote they’d be more likely to say they did even if they didn’t. Trying to make ourselves look good is a universal quality.
- Most of the illegal voters were white Non-citizen voters actually tracked pretty closely with their proportion of the population, and about 44% of them were white. The next most common demographic was Hispanic at 30%, then black, then Asian. In terms of proportion, the same percent of white non-citizens voted as Hispanic non-citizens.
- Non-citizens are unlikely to sway a national election, but could sway state level elections When Trump originally referenced this study, he specifically was using it to discuss national popular vote results. In the Wired article, they do the math and find that even if all of the numbers in the study bear out it would not sway the national popular vote. However, the original study actually drilled down to a state level and found that individual states could have their results changed by non-citizen voters. North Carolina and Florida would both have been within the realm of mathematical possibility for the 2008 election, and for state level races the math is also there.
Now, how much confidence you place in this study is up to you. Given the small sample size, things like selection bias and non-response bias definitely come in to play. That’s true any time you’re trying to extrapolate the behavior of 20 million people off of the behavior of a few hundred. It is important to note that the study authors did a LOT of due diligence attempting to verifying and reality check the numbers they got, but it’s never possible to control for everything.
If you do take this study seriously, it’s interesting to note what the authors actually thought the most effective counter-measure against non-citizen voting would be: education. Since they found that low education levels were correlated with increased voting and that poll workers rarely turned people away, they came away from this study with the suggestion that simply doing a better job of notifying people of voting rules might be just as effective (and cheaper!) than attempting to verify citizenship. Ultimately it appears that letting individual states decide on their own strategies would also be more effective than anything on the federal level, as different states face different challenges. Things to ponder.