Fact check: Claim that voting noncitizens affected 2020 election outcome is unverified
The claim: Joe Biden received extra votes in battleground states from noncitizens
Since Election Day, President Donald Trump’s campaign has launched a series of lawsuits calling into question election results in some key battleground states, and alleging fraudulent voting practices that affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, USA TODAY has reported.
Experts say the lawsuits will likely fail, but a public policy research firm found merit in the Trump campaign’s complaints.
An estimated 234,570 extra votes were cast by noncitizens in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, enough to deliver a win for President-elect Joe Biden, according to a report from Just Facts Daily. The website is an extension of conservative-leaning research institute, Just Facts.
“These estimates account for just one type of election fraud, and they tend to understate it because they depend on Census surveys, which are known to undercount noncitizens,” Just Facts' James D. Agresti wrote.
The claim is similar to one put forward by the Trump campaign after the 2016 election. Trump lost the popular vote, the campaign said, because noncitizens accounted for more than 800,000 votes for then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Snopes debunked this claim in 2017.
The recent lawsuits filed in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona – states where Trump lost – do not address similar themes, instead asking judges to prevent certification of results. State leaders and election officials have said there is no evidence of voter fraud, USA TODAY reported.
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Whom does the census count?
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates a count of every resident in the United States, regardless of citizenship, every 10 years to determine apportionment, or the number of congressional seats per state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A 2012 report found that 1.5% of the Hispanic population was undercounted in the 2010 census, along with 2.1% of the Black population and 4.9% of the American Indian and Alaskan Native population living on reservations.
Racial minorities may have been undercounted during 2020 census collection because of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Trump administration's decision to end collection a month early, according to Reuters. Demographics experts also blamed a likely drop in census participation among undocumented immigrants on the administration's bid to add a question about citizenship to the survey, per Reuters. (Though the Trump administration had sought to include a citizenship question in this year's census, the president ultimately abandoned the effort after the Supreme Court ruled against it, USA TODAY reported.)
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Can noncitizens vote in U.S. elections?
Registration for voting in federal elections is reserved for U.S. citizens, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. The right to vote in local municipal or town elections has been extended to noncitizens in 11 states.
Whether voting by mail or in-person, registrants voting in a federal election supply evidence of their residence, a signature or another form of verification when submitting a ballot, according to Robert Brandon, founder of the Fair Elections Center.
"The handful of times when people try to do something, they're caught and they’re indicted. ... It’s only a handful of individuals and that’s not going to change an election," Brandon told USA TODAY about voter fraud.
Agresti argues some noncitizens manage to vote in federal elections despite preventive measures. But allegations of voter fraud by noncitizens tend to be "exaggerated or unfounded," according to a 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a center-left institute. Few people purposefully register to vote if they are knowingly ineligible.
"Given that the penalty (not only criminal prosecution, but deportation) is so severe, and the payoff (one incremental vote) is so minimal for any individual voter, it makes sense that extremely few non-citizens would attempt to vote, knowing that doing so is illegal," the Brennan Center observed.
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'Illegal' voting estimates
A 2014 study, "Do noncitizens vote in US elections?", by Old Dominion University researchers Jesse T. Richman, Guishan A. Chattha and David C. Earnest found "very little reliable data exists concerning the frequency with which non-citizen immigrants participate in United States elections." But it did find that some noncitizens do vote. Most noncitizens who voted in the 2008 presidential election chose Barack Obama and those who voted in the 2010 midterms voted for Democrats.
Richman, a political moderate, told Wired magazine in 2017 that some have misinterpreted his research. "Trump and others have been misreading our research and exaggerating our results to make claims we don't think our research supports," he said.
The results Richman, Chatta and Earnest used in their analysis were from an opt-in internet survey designed for citizens only. Michael Jones-Correa, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study's critics, told Wired that any responses from noncitizens were included because of error.
Jones-Correa also said the sample size is too small for a representative sample of the noncitizen population. The researchers were able to verify when 40% of 339 noncitizen respondents to the 2008 survey voted. In the 2010 survey, 489 respondents identified themselves as noncitizens, and more than 3% reported voting that year, according to the study.
Just Facts used this study's findings as the foundation of its own examination of the 2020 election results.
"Just Facts’ study applies the party vote breakdown of 82% Democrat and 18% Republican to the 2020 election. By subtracting these illegal votes for Trump from the illegal votes for Biden, the study arrives at the figures above for the extra votes that these fraudulent activities have netted Biden in the battleground states," Agresti wrote. He also reiterated this point in an email to USA TODAY.
Census estimates of the number of foreign-born residents in key battleground states were used to calculate the figures Agresti referenced. According to Just Facts Daily, potential votes cast by noncitizens were estimated, on the high and low end, at:
- Arizona: 51,081 ± 17,689
- Georgia: 54,950 ± 19,025
- Michigan: 22,585 ± 7,842
- Nevada: 22,021 ± 7,717
- North Carolina: 46,218 ± 16,001
- Pennsylvania: 32,706 ± 11,332
- Wisconsin: 5,010 ± 1,774
Two researchers who praised the study, Michael Cook and Andrew Glen, are not election experts.
Cook is a financial analyst, according to his LinkedIn profile page.
Andrew Glen was a professor in the Math department at the United States Military Academy, West Point, but retired several years ago, according to LTC Christopher Ophardt, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the school.
"He was an academy professor. He is a professor emeritus. His discipline is statistics," Ophardt told USA TODAY.
Glen also co-authored another Just Facts article with Agresti about a correlation between anxiety and mandated self-isolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Agresti denied a conflict of interest with respect to the 2020 election study.
"Colleagues offering opinions of each other’s work is commonplace and is not a conflict of interest," Agresti told USA TODAY. "Dr. Glen’s academic credentials are impeccable, and he built them through decades of scrupulous scholarship. He would not speak highly of this research if he thought differently, and if he had a problem with it, he would say so."
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Could noncitizens have turned the tide for Biden?
Uncovering exactly how many noncitizens may have voted for Biden would be impossible without an investigation into voter rolls, a fact Agresti acknowledged to USA TODAY.
"To confirm the results would require cross-checking 'voter rolls against other databases that contain information on citizenship status,' but some states withheld public voting data from the Trump administration 'under the guise that the data is personal,'” Agresti said.
Restrictions on access to voter data vary by state, according to the NCSL. Voter information is publicly available in Georgia and Wisconsin, but available upon request in Michigan and Nevada. In Arizona and North Carolina, political parties are provided with voter rolls and they are available at election offices for inspection. Data is accessible to the public in Pennsylvania during business hours, and voters' addresses can be provided to political parties upon request.
Arizona is the sole state that asks registrants for country of birth, according to the NCSL, but this information is confidential.
Considering how few noncitizens register to vote in federal elections and the accessibility of voter information, Just Facts' assertion that illegal votes affected the outcome of the 2020 election is unfounded.
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Our rating: Missing context
We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT, because it could mislead without additional context. The claim that voter turnout from noncitizens affected the popular vote in the 2020 presidential race in battleground states is plausible but unproven. Voting in federal elections is reserved for U.S. citizens and few noncitizens knowingly register to vote. Just Facts Daily's research into how many noncitizens could have voted relies on unverifiable estimates.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, Nov. 14, "Trump says the battleground states saw election fraud. Republican officials running those states disagree."
- USA TODAY, Nov. 8, "Elections expert Q&A: No evidence of fraud and fail-safes everywhere in US voting system"
- USA TODAY, Nov. 12, "Trump campaign's challenge of election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona push US toward 'loss of democracy'"
- Just Facts Daily, accessed Nov. 19, "About Us"
- Just Facts, May 4, "Anxiety From Reactions to Covid-19 Will Destroy At Least Seven Times More Years of Life Than Can Be Saved by Lockdowns"
- National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed Nov. 19, "Voting by Nonresidents"
- National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed Nov. 19, "Access To and Use Of Voter Registration Lists"
- United States Census Bureau, accessed Nov. 19, "About"
- United States Census Bureau, accessed Nov. 19, "Congressional Apportionment FAQs"
- United States Census Bureau, May 22, 2012, "Census Bureau Releases Estimates of Undercount and Overcount in the 2010 Census"
- Brennan Center for Justice, Nov. 9, 2007, "The Truth About Voter Fraud"
- Reuters, Oct. 13, "How poor regions lose out because of U.S. census undercounts"
- United States Military Academy, West Point, accessed Nov. 19: "Academic Departments"
- Andrew Glen's LinkedIn profile, accessed Nov. 19
- Michael Cook's LinkedIn profile, accessed Nov. 19
- Snopes, Feb. 1, 2017, "Did a Study Show That Hillary Clinton Received More Than 800,000 Votes from Non-Citizens in the 2016 Election?"
- Wired, Jan. 25, 2017, "Author of Trump's Favorite Voter Fraud Study Says Everyone's Wrong"
- USA TODAY, Aug. 20, 2019, "Donald Trump drops fight to get citizenship question on 2020 census; other federal records to be used"
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