Jesse Richman used to be one of those researchers who only dreamed his work might someday capture national attention—maybe even inspire some sort of systemic change. On Ratemyprofessor.com, his students describe him as tough but fair, a “genius” who was liberal with extra credit projects and went out of his way to offer help. In 2014, Richman’s world changed when he co-authored a paper on voter fraud that instantly caught fire. At first, he was energized by all the buzz and proud to get his work published. Now, he says, “there are days I wish I hadn’t.” That’s because his paper, “Do Non-Citizens Vote in US Elections?” which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Electoral Studies, has become a cornerstone of President Trump’s false claim that he would have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” This week White House Press secretary Sean Spicer once again dragged the study to the forefront, noting that a study of the 2008 election (which he wrongly attributed to Pew Research) showed 14 percent of non-citizens are registered to vote. That was Richman’s research, all right. The problem, says Richman, who identifies as a political moderate, is that the Trump administration’s interpretation of his report is totally off. “Trump and others have been misreading our research and exaggerating our results to make claims we don’t think our research supports,” Richman says. “I’m not sure why they continue to do it, but there’s not much I can do about that aside from set the record straight.”
In an interview airing tonight on ABC News, President Trump also pointed to an actual Pew Research report about outdated voter rolls, but according to its own author, that report found no instances of voter fraud.
Now, Richman’s study and the Pew Report are set to become the foundation of the Trump administration’s newly promised investigation into potential voter fraud—whatever Richman says about their interpretation of his findings. The political exploitation of Richman’s work is a blow against intellectual honesty and scientific integrity. What’s more, voting rights advocates fear the investigation it’s being used to prop up could lead to severe voting restrictions in the future.
Even before Trump came along, Richman’s research was the subject of controversy. The report, which he wrote about in the Washington Post with his fellow Old Dominion researcher David Earnest, drew its conclusions from the results of the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies, an opt-in online survey of voter behavior. The researchers analyzed responses from citizens and non-citizens in 2008 and 2010 and checked them against existing voter files. What they found suggested that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008, while 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.