On Oct. 17, at a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump made one of his many provocative claims about the integrity of U.S. elections, especially in battleground states crucial to his election chances. “It’s possible that non-citizen voters were responsible for Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina,” Trump told the crowd in the packed convention center. “It could have provided his margin of victory.” The charge was, in some ways, quintessential Trump, melding two central themes of his candidacy: the supposed danger posed by undocumented immigrants, and alleged “large scale voter fraud” that could tip the election against him. Trump’s claim was quickly dismissed as a “pants on fire” distortion by Will Doran of PolitiFact North Carolina. But while it may have been easy for some to dismiss the allegation as Trump’s latest truth-challenged exaggeration, the reality is that, at the state and federal level, such rhetoric has resulted in discriminatory policy that threatens immigrant citizens’ voting rights. The study Trump was alluding to came from a guest editorial published in the Washington Post shortly before the November 2014 elections by two researchers from Old Dominion University. Drawing on self-reported data, the authors claimed that up to 6 percent of non-citizens in the U.S. voted in 2008, nearly 18,000 in North Carolina alone.
The report was widely criticized by other election experts, who noted the flaws in relying on self-reported survey answers (which often don’t match up with actual voter data) and the study’s miniscule sample size (just 339 people nationally). The Harvard-affiliated Cooperative Congressional Election Study, on which the Old Dominion scholars based their research, specifically warned against using their data set to draw any conclusions about non-citizen voting.
The math also didn’t add up: Even using the researchers’ unlikely projections, the highest total number of potential votes actually cast by undocumented immigrants would have been 7,313. Even assuming they all chose Obama, that’s about half of Obama’s 14,000-vote margin in 2008.
The preponderance of research has shown that the myth of widespread non-citizen voting — like broader claims of rampant “voter fraud” — is just that, a myth. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded last month, the number of non-citizens voting is at most a “tiny fraction” of the broader electorate.