As Donald Trump maintains his incendiary attacks on the legitimacy of the election, one of his favorite themes has been the claim that the results will be tainted by the votes of millions of people in the U.S. illegally. “They are letting people pour into the country so they can go ahead and vote,” he said this month, in a meeting with the head of the union representing border patrol agents. “And believe me, there’s a lot going on,” Trump said at a rally. “People that have died 10 years ago are still voting. Illegal immigrants are voting.” Part of the Republican-led crackdown on supposed voter fraud, battles over measures to guard against noncitizen voters have percolated for years in election offices, state legislatures and federal courtrooms. Records in these fights show that small numbers of noncitizens do end up registered, and a few have cast votes. However, no one has uncovered evidence of thousands of noncitizen voters — and no evidence has emerged to support Trump’s theory of a coordinated effort to throw an election by stuffing the voting rolls with ineligible immigrants. “What we have seen are errors,” said Dale Ho, director of the voting rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s not a horde of people trying to break into this country so they can vote.”
The rule on voting eligibility is simple: Except for a handful of cities that permit noncitizens to vote in local elections, everyone who casts a vote in America is supposed to be a citizen, either by birth or by naturalization. And although the distinction is sometimes lost in the loud debates over undocumented immigration, even green-card holders, who are legal permanent residents, also are ineligible to vote until they become citizens.
In most places in the U.S., the question is handled solely on the honor system. When people register to vote, they check a box attesting that they are U.S. citizens. Election administrators verify identity by looking at driver’s license or Social Security numbers, for example, but under federal guidelines, they may not ask for proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport.