How Many Non-Citizen Voters? Enough to Make a Difference!

October 13, 2008

by David Simcox

The Impact Of Non-Citizen Voting On American Elections

The approaching 2008 general elections underscore concern that the growing access of non-citizens to the ballot box could distort the outcome. Groups arguing for easier access to the polls deny there is a problem at all, seeing restrictive registration and identification rules as anti-democratic and even racist. They dismiss non-citizen voting as rare, not criminal in intent or concerted, and more harmful than beneficial to non-citizens.

Yet anecdotal evidence persists and grows that non-citizens are registering and voting in significant numbers. A common and increasing indicator is the number of persons selected for jury duty from the voter rolls who beg off because they are not citizens. The 1993 "Motor-Voter" legislation accelerated the trend: it provided registration virtually by default, with affirmation of citizenship left to an honor system. The risk of detection of this fraud has waned with the increasing use of absentee and mail-in voting, which precludes personal inspection at the polls by election officials.

Anecdotal evidence tells us only that illegal voting happens around the country, not how much. But there is overlooked data that define, if not the exact number of alien voters, at least the order of magnitude and extent of the practice.

The explosive growth of the Latino electorate in south Florida after "Motor-Voter" resulted in a registration rate among Miami-Dade county's putatively voting-eligible population some 30 percentage points higher than the national registration rate for Hispanics, suggesting a heavy presence of ineligibles on the voter rolls.

A Public Policy Institute of California survey in 2007 found 31 percent of the state's immigrant population was registered. This fraction, however, would be a population larger than the state's naturalized citizens shown by surveys to be registered. Some 300,000 to 450,000 registrations of non-citizens would be needed to bring total registrations up to 31 percent. Also in California, a poll by a Los Angeles university think tank in 2007 found that 12 percent of non-citizen respondents acknowledged being registered, implying 155,000 ineligible voters in Los Angeles County.

Assuming the 12 percent registration rate applied to the nation's adult non-citizens, there would be 2.3 million ineligible aliens on U.S. voting rolls.

An examination of voter registration rates in immigrant-rich congressional districts and counties in California, Texas, Florida, and New York show high numbers of registered voters disproportionate to their vote-eligible populations. In several districts and jurisdictions the number of registrants even exceeded the total number of eligible voters.

Intense political mobilization and registration drives by ethnic groups in preparation for the 2008 elections-some of them aggrieved by tightened immigration policy-may well further enlarge the alien electorate.

An estimated two to two and a half million ineligible voters may seem insignificant in an overall electorate that could reach 130 million in 2008. But in three presidential elections since 1960, the principal contenders have been separated by margins far less than two million. The concentration of those non-citizen votes in just a few states disproportionately increases their leverage in state and local contests and in the Electoral College.

Can U.S. residents who are prohibited from voting, but vote anyway, affect the political future of the country or its political subdivisions?

If you believe the word of open suffrage nonprofit organizations1 and think tanks,2 such as those whose challenge to Indiana's voter identification (ID) laws was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2008,3 the number of non-citizens who vote is negligible. Dismissing the lax voter registration process ushered in by the 1993 Motor-Voter law, those advocates argue that non-citizens have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by illegal voting, such as loss or delay of naturalization or, if illegal aliens, detection and deportation.

Those claiming the number of proven cases of fraud is inconsequential often cite a Department of Justice (DOJ) five-year campaign begun in 2002 in which only 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted. These are cases in which DOJ was involved. The scoffers often ignore the sizable number of cases investigated at the state level, including those handled quietly and without criminal penalties in administrative processes.

Statements of various U.S. Attorneys involved invoke a permissive legal doctrine that discourages prosecution of non-citizen voting fraud, such as absence of "concerted effort to tilt elections," little evidence of "widespread, organized fraud," "mistakes or misunderstandings by immigrants, not fraud," and no indications of "conspiracy." Apparently, citizens must tolerate the spreading access of ineligible voters to the ballot boxes as long as it is "disorganized, not concerted, lacking criminal intent, and non-conspiratorial."

Some cases since 1995 in which community and ethnic nonprofit groups have been caught registering non-citizens, such as Hermandad Nacional Mexicana, DemocraciaUSA, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN), are, according to these arguments, just the result of honest mistakes or confusion among the non-citizen registrants themselves about the citizenship requirement or their own status.

Some of these non-compliant groups have been beneficiaries of federal grants. But Americans favoring more, not less, ballot security remain convinced that non-citizen voters in 1996 provided the narrow winning margin in Democrat Loretta Sanchez's upset of long-time incumbent Republican Bob Dornan in California's 47th Congression-al district (Orange County). They believe that the incident was not isolated and that it presaged a growing threat to good government in general and the Republican party in particular. Few accept the official 1997 finding of a California grand jury that the 624 proven votes by ineligible aliens-out of more than 4,000 claimed by Dornan's attorneys-would not have altered the outcome.

Those arguing for added safeguards against ineligible voters have provided abundant anecdotal cases of non-citizen registration and voting, but few macro-statistics showing national or regional dimensions of the practice. Much of the evidence tends to be circumstantial.

For example, U.S. Census data show that 41 percent of Hispanics and 33 percent of Asians are non-citizens. Yet a national survey of reasons for not voting showed 13.8 percent of Hispanics and 13.1 percent of Asians gave "ineligibility" as their reason for not registering. How much of the gap can be attributed to the unfamiliarity of newcomers with the terms and regulations?

Cases numbering in the hundreds have surfaced in which non-citizen registered voters have admitted non-citizenship to escape a summons to jury duty. But such scattered cases are little help in projecting overall numbers for the nation or its major political subdivisions.

The lack of data is not surprising. It is not something busy voter registrars in high immigration states want to examine carefully. To do so risks the hostility of open suffrage and ethnic political advocates who impute racism or oppression of the poor to rigorous voting rules. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-now the Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS)-has shown distaste for being drawn into investigations, alleging lack of useful data to prove non-citizenship.

In another example of reliance on the honor system, the current naturalization application form used by CIS, the N-400, asks applicants if they have registered or voted in a U.S. election. CIS so far has declined to disclose the number answering "yes." Any such a number would have questionable validity, given the possible complications for the applicant who admits having voted.

But indicators of significant registration of non-citizens continue to pop up. The current vast voter registration campaigns of Hispanic and Asian ethnic interests since Congress's 2006 rejection of mass amnesty may force local registrars to increase their rubber-stamping of applications, producing new legions of non-citizens to try to vote in 2008.