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What can we learn about the electoral behavior of non-citizens from a survey designed to learn about citizens?

- October 28, 2014

(Orlin Wagner/AP)
The following is a guest post from University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientists John Ahlquist and Scott Gehlbach.
7, 2, 0, 12, 4, 0, 7, 1, 17, 3,345. These are, as we write, the number of comments on 10 recent posts at the Monkey Cage. Which contribution hit Internet pay dirt? Jesse Richman and David Earnest’s “Could non-citizens decide the November election?
The title of the post should give a sense of why so many found it worthy of elaboration, but if there is any doubt, a quick perusal of the comments reveals that many respondents have found validation for their belief that the Democratic Party wins elections through electoral fraud. One can also read the title that Breitbart gave to their summary of the post: “Study: Voting by non-citizens tips balance for Democrats.” RedState was similarly definitive, with “Study: Illegal votes can determine elections; Voter ID not sufficient.”
Was it Richman and Earnest’s intention to provide fuel to conspiracy theorists who assert, as RedState does, that “[i]n most of the country if Democrats are prevented from cheating they cannot win“? We do not know, but they certainly did not go out of their way to prevent it. Beyond the provocative title, there was the assertion that “[n]on-citizen votes could have given Senate Democrats the pivotal 60th vote needed to overcome filibusters in order to pass health-care reform and other Obama administration priorities in the 111th Congress.” With immigration, electoral malfeasance, and Obamacare in the same sentence, readers could be forgiven if they went straight to the comments section rather than proceeding to learn about the “obvious limitations to [the authors’] research.”
The limitations are, in fact, numerous, and not limited to those that Richman and Earnest enumerate. Their estimates rely on a key question from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study: “Are you registered to vote?” Notably, this is not the same question as “Are you registered to vote in the United States?” In principle, non-citizens could be registered to vote only in their home country and respond affirmatively, and truthfully, to the question on the survey.(Respondents are asked for the Zip code at which they are registered to vote, but this could be interpreted as the Zip code at which non-citizens receive absentee ballots from abroad. Mexico, for example, has allowed absentee voting by mail from abroad since 2005.) If this sounds outlandish, consider that 20 percent (15 out of 75) of those non-citizens claiming to be registered in 2008 were in fact verified as not being registered to vote in the United States. Another 61 percent (46 of 75) could not be matched to either a commercial or voter database. That leaves only 14 out of 75 non-citizen respondents claiming to be registered in 2008 who were in fact confirmed as registered to vote in the United States.
This raises a more general point: The Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which focuses on the behavior of citizens, is ill-suited to examine the behavior of non-citizens, who make up about one percent of the sample. One consequence of this is that the number of respondents who report that they are not citizens yet vote or are registered to vote is quite small in absolute terms: in 2010, for example, only 13 respondents — not 13 percent, but 13 out of 55,400 respondents — reported that they were not citizens, yet had voted. Given the ever-present possibility of respondent or coder error, it takes a bit of hubris to draw strong conclusions about the behavior of non-citizens from such small numbers.
Finally, there is the question of what to do with these results. If we want to reduce the probability that voting by non-citizens affects election outcomes, it would almost certainly be more cost-effective to increase voting among citizens than to try to move the already small number of non-citizen votes even closer to zero. Indeed, given Richman and Earnest’s suggestion that “lack of awareness about legal barriers” could play a role in non-citizen voting, we could kill two birds with one stone through voter-education campaigns that emphasize who can vote as well as where and when voting takes place.
If you click on “What’s the Monkey Cage?” at this site’s homepage, you see the following statement: “Here at The Monkey Cage, we talk about political science research and use it to make some sense of the circus that is politics.” It is an admirable goal, often achieved, but Richman and Earnest’s poorly considered post has added to the circus rather than making sense of it.