No Simple Answers about Illegal Voting

Illegal voting does occur in Virginia. But it's not clear how much.

Yes, Virginia, illegal voting by non-citizens does occur here. The practice may be widespread…. or not. We don’t know for sure. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

President-elect Donald Trump blasted out another of his notorious tweets three days ago, claiming that he would have won a majority of votes in the 2016 election were it not for “serious voter fraud” in Virginia and other states. “Why isn’t the media reporting on this?” he asked. “Serious bias – big problem!”

National TV networks and other prestigious media outlets counter-attacked, describing the tweets as “baseless” and backed by “zero evidence.” NPR traced his “unfounded claim” to the conspiracy-minded Info Wars website and radio show, which used “flawed evidence” in reporting that three million people voted illegally. The sum total of the reporting has been to imply that not only is Trump’s claim without merit but that voting fraud occurs on such an insignificant scale as to be electorally meaningless.

Trump’s insistence that he would have won the popular vote had two million people not voted illegally is a huuuge stretch. However, the national media has not distinguished itself in debunking the charge. Pillars of the news establishment have abandoned any pretense of objectivity. Indeed, their unhinged reaction lends credence to Trump’s charge that they are guilty of serious bias.

The fact is, there is credible evidence that illegal voting does occur on a fairly large scale. Media pundits quoting other media pundits in an endless loop does not constitute proof otherwise.

The first body of evidence comes from Jesse T. Richman, Gulshan A. Chattha and David C. Earnest, professors at Old Dominion University and George Mason University. Writing in a 2014 edition of Electoral Studies, they drew upon data from an internet-based survey compiled as part of the 2008 and 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies. The survey sample was robust:  32,800 in 2008 and 54,00 in 2010. Unlike other voter surveys, this study did not filter out the responses of non-citizens.

Extrapolating from the survey results, the authors concluded that “the proportion of non-citizens who voted in 2008 was less than fifteen percent, but significantly greater than zero.” In 2010, “more than three percent of non-citizens reported voting.”

Given statistical margins of error and other uncertainties, there is no way to quantify an exact number of non-citizen voters. The authors give a range of between 33,000 nationally on the low end and 2.8 million on the high end. (I’m not certain where Trump got his data, but he might well have seized upon the authors’ high-end estimate. Using that number without stating the caveats and qualifiers might justly be characterized as reckless. But it is not “baseless.”)

Despite the uncertainties, Richman, Chattha and Earnest said that non-citizen votes could have influenced some electoral outcomes in 2008. For instance, presidential election results in North Carolina were so close that a mere 5.1% turnout of non-citizens could have given Barack Obama his 14,177-vote margin of victory. By contrast, Obama’s margin in Virginia was so wide that it would have required 85% of non-citizens voting — an improbably large percentage — to have handed him a victory.

A second body of evidence comes from a 2016 study by the Public Interest Legal Foundation. PILF documented — as in, it provided documentary evidence, not statistical inference — of 1,046 non-citizens registered to vote in Virginia who were subsequently removed from the voter rolls. The authors also documented that these non-citizens accounted for nearly 200 ballots cast.

The numbers sound negligible but they were based on responses from eight jurisdictions accounting for only 16% of the state’s population. Extrapolating statewide, the number of ballots cast could well have exceeded 1,200 and the number of improper registrations 6,000. Extrapolating nationally, we could be talking 50,000 votes and 240,000 registrations.

Admittedly, there are dangers in extrapolating those numbers. We don’t know how representative those eight Virginia jurisdictions are of national patterns. On the other hand, one can argue that these numbers under-represent the extent of illegal voting because they reflect only non-citizens who were identified and removed from voter rolls. The figures do not include non-citizens whose illegal registrations were never caught.

All studies of electoral fraud are based on imperfect data and assumptions that can be challenged. There is a fuzzy halo of uncertainty around any estimate. But it is patently wrong to say that there is “zero evidence” that wide-scale illegal voting is occurring.

Tweeting claims casually scooped up from the Internet does not project the gravitas we expect of our president-elect. But shrill denunciations emanating from national news organizations are no more credible. The truth is, illegal voting does occur but it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much. Unless Trump and the media do better, the public will learn to trust neither.

Update: Turns out that Jesse Richman has opined on this very question. His verdict: There is no way that non-citizen votes could account for Clinton’s winning margin in the popular vote. But his commentary suggests that he believes voting by non-citizens still occurs.

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17 responses to “No Simple Answers about Illegal Voting

  1. Actually, there is a simple answer to voter fraud: none or next to none.

    The Public Interest Legal Foundation, an extremist group based in Indiana, came up with several largely bogus studies in Virginia and several other states just before the election alleging non citizen voting. It kinda came up with a lot of nothing.

    The other material you brought up is likewise suspect.”There are uncertainties”…”dangers in extrapolating numbers” and so on. You hit the nail on the head there, Jim.

    Trump may be nuts alleging widespread voter fraud in an election he actually won. But it sure isn’t preventing the right-wing echo chamber from pretending it is a massive issue:
    See this from me in the Post:

  2. The first study is clearly bogus – what non-citizen would “self-identify” on an internet-based survey and how would you verify that those who did self-identify as non-citizen – were?

    The PILF is a right-wing front group using a noble-sounding name to throw the gullible off … and as you can see – it works.

    Finally – I could accuse Bacon of beating the tar out of his wife and kids and require him to prove he did not… that’s the kind of “logic” in play here.

    the only thing “shrill” is the willful ignorance of those who give credence to Trump and his sources – the alt-right conspiracy theory idiots.

    One of the biggest problems of our school system – is that it does not teach “critical thinking” and it’s on massive display here.

  3. 135 million votes cast in the United States earlier this month. Couldn’t be any illegal voters in that total. The WaPo says so. Of course there were. How many? We should find out. Did they swing any close elections? Who knows?

    Speaking of the Post. I’m seeing the intense emotional pain among so many staffers there. Even though I supported Johnson, I’m loving the pain. Hope it lasts four years. The Post has talked down at so many people for so many years. Karma.

  4. there are 133 counties, cities and towns registrars and over 2500 separate physical voting places in Va. Each of the 2500+ places are staffed by folks who usually live in that precinct – and know a lot of the folks who also live there. Each one is checked upon entry for a picture ID and as well as asking them their address and verifying it on the rolls.

    Each election, at each of the 2500+ places there are usually a couple dozen folks who for various reasons do not have proper IDs, or don’t appear in the database at all or for that precinct, etc. Some are denied voting, others vote with a provisional ballot which if verified later before accepting.

    You’d be surprised how many folks don’t KNOW where their precinct is – if they are new or if the precinct location changed – as happens when precincts are moved or voting boundaries changed.

    People show up and don’t even know all the people on the ballot beyond the top one or two!!! It’s eenie, meenie, miney, moe!

    It’s NORMAL for a certain number of folks to end up not able to vote or having to vote provisionally but the idea that you’d have a bunch of “illegals” with forged IDs who ALSO APPEAR on the voter database – voting – and all of them voting for one particular candidate so as to effect an election – is , in a word – bizarre.

    But that’s what you get when people are swilling conspiracy theories from 10,000 feet. They can and will believe whatever stirs their emotion more than their intellect.. an apparently more common disease than one might think.

    I don’t say voting irregularities don’t happen. I say it’s damn near impossible for them to be a monolithic conspiracy.. to turn elections.

    • Larry, when you were young, did you ever know anyone with a fake ID? I don’t subscribe to the theory that millions of illegal votes occurred. But neither do I believe the leftwing views of the Post that it’s virtually unknown. There is illegal voting and it needs to be stopped. I have a right not to have my vote diluted. So do you. I hope the DoJ looks into this issue.

      I’ve been voting in McLean for almost 30 years. I’ve never had anyone working the polls – outside the Party watchers – know me.

      • @TMT – fake IDs are real… but a heck of a lot of trouble just to be able to vote – and you have to remember – you have to REGISTER to vote FIRST -and the information on the ID checked – that’s how the registrar’s found and removed from the rolls those who were not allowed to vote. That’s how the PILF “found” them – they were just repeating what was in the reports produced by election officials.

        In terms of precincts – most of them are around 2000 – 3000 so you may not know the workers – but did you know that the workers are looking at a database that shows if you have voted in prior elections?

        the whole “illegal voting” thing is ignorant in my view – because it is PRESUMED to be folks who will ALL vote one way… and they will do it in numbers sufficient to “dilute” votes or change elections which is just idiotic.

        Listen to the voting officials – many of them GOP – who say the same thing… it’s just loony to believe that such a conspiracy would be carried out.

        yes.. there ARE irregularities and YES some votes actually do not get counted… while others do get counted that should not.

        When you have millions of people voting – you’re not going o be 100% without flaws. And you’re NEVER going to get rid of all of it – people make mistakes… and screwups happen – and the one that really happens and really affects vote count is what is known as split-precincts where a election boundary is split for that precinct and some folks vote for one district and others for the other district – like Congressional District 1 and 7 or the like. We had hundreds of people vote in the wrong district in Spotsylvania a couple of elections ago.. because poll workers did not realize the ballots were different!!!

        but to go from irregularities to conspiracy theories about elections where all the “illegals” are voting one way – is just plain loony…

        If you’re looking for perfection at the polls – you’re going to be disappointed… people screw up.. but it’s not a grand conspiracy.

        • Larry, I don’t think many individuals who have or can get a fake ID do it for the purpose of voting illegally. In a nation as large as ours, I’m sure some do, but it’s not likely a huge phenomenon. And I would guess that people who do this are not always Democratic voters.

          But what I think you are missing is the ability of committed individuals, who could be financed by other committed individuals or entities, to organize a campaign to provide fake IDs and vote in larger groups. Organized voter fraud is quite likely. Do you think George Soros would be unwilling to send money to fund such activities? Is is all illegal immigrants? Probably not. But might committed activists among illegal immigrants being willing to engage in voter fraud? Radical students? How else can one explain precincts around the U.S. where more votes are cast than the total of registered voters? Hence, my call for an investigation by the DoJ. I have a right not to have my vote diluted by illegal voters.

      • As the father of 5 sons I can attest that fake IDs are not only a “real thing” but quite easy to acquire and quite accurate looking. Now, don’t get me wrong, the 4 of my 5 sons with fake IDs had no interesting in illegally voting. They had more liquid thoughts on their minds. As for the fith son – he is only 11. Give him time.

  5. Larry, I echo TMT. A person can get a student ID/driver’s license/other form of acceptable ID without having to prove citizenship. Using that ID, you can then register to vote. I have moved several times in the four decades that I have been voting. I have NEVER been asked to establish my citizenship before registering to vote. In Northern Virginia the precincts are too populous for people to know everybody. Only once in three decades have I know someone at the polls in my local precinct. You keep throwing up “red herring” arguments without addressing known, proven facts. We do have non-citizens voting in our elections. The only question is “how pervasive is this problem?” That is the big unknown. I would like to think that nobody who worries about our democracy would be opposed to working to figure out that number, and if that number is “too high”, working to reduce the number of illegitimate votes in our elections.

    • @JNL – have you ever worked as a poll worker?

      If you are a transient – then yes – folks are not going to know you but in you live and vote in MOST of Virginia – many vote in the same precincts for years, decades.. and people DO know each other.

      Let me ask you – HOW DO YOU KNOW that non-citizens are voting in elections? How was it found out? Usually it’s the election officials who have made this determination. Do you know how they do it?

      and if you are not an election official but a private individual or a group like PILF – how would you find out?

      and once you found out – do you have any way of proving how they voted or if they voted in a bloc?

      I’m IN FAVOR of procedures to find and remove people from the voter rolls that should not be there.

      I’m ALSO in favor of not having gerrymandered districts.

      I’m ALSO in favor of early and easy voting.

      and I’m betting if we did get rid of those who should not vote but did make it easier for those who should be able to – you wouldn’t like that either. right?

      so how would you detect people who should not vote?

      • One should be required to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote as well as reasonable documentation of place of residence. At the polls, a person should present photo ID to vote. I couldn’t pick up my kid at summer SACC without showing picture ID. Try getting on a plane without it. Limited exceptions like those in the Virginia law should be granted.

        Voter records should be cross-checked with other states, death certificates, housing sales, etc. My daughter got a letter from Fairfax County informing her Virginia voter registration had been canceled since she registered to vote in North Carolina. People who don’t vote in say 4 years should be tentatively stricken from the registry and notice of that effect sent to their last none address. Give them 30 days to respond or have the termination made.

  6. What Trump should have said ….

    “I won whether you like it or not. If you don’t like the Constitution – call your US Senator or Representative or … call you state legislators. They can amend the Constitution. I can’t. What else is on the minds of you pea brained liberals?”

  7. Well, perhaps after Trump jails the unrepentant and unpatriotic flag burners – he can get Comey and the FBI to go after those millions of illegals who are illegally voting… and giving Hillary 2 million more votes that she does not deserve… that’s giving him twitter heartburn.

    they could start here to get all those illegals in Virginia:

    ” When registering to vote, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution of Virginia (1971) requires you to provide your social security number, if you have one. If you do not provide your social security number, your application will be denied. Voting officials use the social security number as a unique identifier to ensure that no voter is registered in more than one place.”

    there are two separate parts to voting:

    1. – get registered to vote – prove your legal presence , give your SS #

    2. – when actually voting – provide photo-ID but also be found on the registered voter rolls for the precinct you are trying to vote in which you were told when you got registered to vote.

    I’ll not claim that it’s not possible to be a non-citizen and get registered to vote – but there is high risk to trying to vote illegally if you are not a citizen. You could be caught and referred to law enforcement. You’d risk being exposed and reported to immigration. Your family could be put at risk.. etc.

    but let’s let Mr. Trump put the gears of govt into action and track those illegal voters down.. “extreme” voter registration 😉

  8. Larry, I doubt the poll workers know very many of those voting so to infer this is a fraud deterrent is specious, IMHO. Maybe so in a small precinct…

    Here’s my precinct:
    023 – ARROWHEAD Vote Totals 710 1,077 79 32 24. (1922 votes)

    Assuming a 70% participation for the sake of argument that’s ~ 2700 folks who could have voted.

    I surely don’t know any where near that number of my fellow residents even after 30-odd years and I feel sure the poll workers don’t either.

    • Well I was not implying that the poll workers “knew” everyone – but more along the lines that the people who voted there often saw familiar faces and if they voted there for years – they probably knew some of the poll workers.. and would notice if there was a sudden influx of foreign-looking folks…

      be aware also – that by the time they have showed up to vote -they would have had already gone to the registrar – proved their legal presence and presented a SS .. only later do they show up to vote and it’s a no go if their name is not on the registered voter database.

  9. I’m with DonR and TMT and JNL and the rest who have raised teenage kids and know the prevalence of fake IDs. And it doesn’t help, our patchwork of immigration status cards and medical IDs and proof thereof and lack thereof, both State and federal. Personally, I’m ready to chuck the whole crazy-quilt system and go with a federal national ID card.

    But that’s not what Jim is writing about here. The real question is trust in the outcome of our federal electoral machinery, which is currently run by the States even though it’s federal officials who are being elected. There is a theme here, written right into the Constitution, that our members of Congress actually represent not only the people but the State from which they come. We changed that somewhat in 1913 with the 17th amendment, providing for direct election of US Senators, but it’s still true that our elections take place essentially as the States see fit to conduct them; there are very few parameters spelled out in the Constitution, other than the decennial census to keep the number of Representatives per State honest and the timing of their election.

    So, I’m concerned when Jim writes, “it is patently wrong to say that there is “zero evidence” that wide-scale illegal voting is occurring.” As a literal matter, yes. But I’m with Peter and the rest, there is way too much fear mongering going on these days. Let’s quietly fix the problems at the State level, but let’s do so without the embarrassment factor so prevalent in States like NC trying to discourage voting by certain of our citizens, and let’s do so while keeping it in perspective: we do NOT have a “huuuuge problem.”

  10. again – fake ids to purchase liquor – is not the same as having to show up at the registrar’s office – prove you are legally present and present a SS before you even know WHICH precinct you would vote at –

    you don’t just show up at any precinct and vote… if you show up at a precinct that does not list you as valid for that precinct – the poll workers will then try to find out what precinct you’re supposed to be at and if they cannot find you at all in the database – more one-on-one with the person in charge.

    Does anyone seriously believe that someone who is here illegally is going to undergo scrutiny as to whether they are legally here or not or have a valid SS?

    it makes no sense – even on an individual basis but certainly not on a whole bunch of folks engaged in some kind of conspiracy to vote enmass for some favored candidate.

    Claiming that some internet poll of people who “self-identify” as illegal and voting illegal – as a credible poll is just loony.

    and the vaunted Public Interest Legal Foundation. PILF – tell me WHERE they got their “evidence”… ???

    ” llegal Foreign Voting in Virginia Covered Up by Soros-Backed Democratic Officials, Says Report”

    “Virginia election officials don’t seem to care that thousands of [foreign] aliens have corrupted their voter rolls,” by illegally registering to vote, said J. Christian Adams, the former Department of Justice lawyer, and now the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. “Even worse than doing nothing about it, they are trying to cover it up,” he told Breitbart News.

    But “in the eight [out of 130-plus] jurisdictions that provided us with lists of aliens recently removed from their voter rolls, we discovered that 31 non-citizens had cast a total of 186 votes between 2005 and 2015,” said the report, given first to Breitbart News. ”

    so what was the “evidence”?

    the jurisdiction reports where the officials themselves found the “illegals” and did remove them from the rolls…

    what exactly did PLIF do itself other than write to the Registrar and ask how many folks they removed from the rolls?

    and this proves what that 31 voters out of how many total ? thousands? did what ? purposely lied or made a mistake? and were found out by processes already in place by officials to find and remove those who should not be on the rolls?

    and this is “proof” of “massive” voter fraud?

    what else would you expect from Breitbart?

    Look – you have to be either a total idiot or so partisan it’s oozing out your pores to put any stock at all in this foolishness…

    why do folks traffic in this kind of loony stuff?

    even many Election officials – GOP elections officials have dismissed this as just plain false…

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