False Claims of Noncitizen Voting Harm Our Democracy

Voters fill out their ballots behind privacy screens with the American flag and the word "Vote"
Photo by Suzannah Hoover

Our democracy flourishes when all Americans can exercise their fundamental freedom to vote.

Yet false claims of mass noncitizen votingdangerous fabrications which have been increasing in frequency — are often used to justify attempts to roll back Americans’ freedom to vote, to divide us, and to sow distrust in our elections.

According to multiple analyses from sources across the political spectrum, instances of noncitizens attempting to vote are exceedingly rare. This is largely due to the safeguards in our electoral system that ensure only eligible citizens are able to register and vote, as well as existing penalties (including criminal punishment, civil consequences, and potential deportation) and the fact that noncitizen voting is already a crime that federal immigration officers look into during the naturalization process.  

In fact, a Brennan Center analysis of the 2016 election found 30 incidents of suspected (not confirmed) noncitizen voting out of more than 23 million votes cast in their study. That amounts to, at most, roughly 0.0001% of votes cast in that single election.

However, self-interested politicians have recently held a congressional hearing, a series of high-profile press conferences, and introduced legislation on purported noncitizen voting — all with the goal of attempting to undermine trust in the electoral process.  

During one press conference, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) admitted to reporters that his unsubstantiated claims about noncitizen voting were, in fact, “not easily provable” but something he knew “intuitively.”

There is a reason Speaker Johnson’s claims are not “easily provable.” It’s because they are false.  

The fact of the matter is that noncitizen voting on a mass scale of the kind that’s being suggested simply does not occur. It’s a fallacy that’s being peddled, for personal and political gain, by leaders who should know better.

Furthermore, state election officials have existing systems in place to verify voter eligibility, and they work tirelessly to ensure voter rolls are accurate. As a result of these efforts, voters can trust that our elections are safe, secure and accurate.  

Unfortunately, policies typically put in place to stop this nonissue often result in eligible U.S. citizens being incorrectly prevented from voting or being forced to jump through additional hoops to exercise their freedom to vote not required of other voters. These provisions often specifically target naturalized U.S. citizens — especially Latinos and Asian Americans — in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

For example, some states have attempted to use citizenship data maintained by their motor vehicle agencies to conduct list maintenance activities. However, this tends to be an ineffective — and actually harmful — approach because Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) and other similar governmental databases are not designed to track current citizenship status for their customers.  

In the scenario outlined above, a DMV may issue a license to a non-U.S. citizen who shows proof of lawful presence, but that person may naturalize and register to vote long before their driver’s license expires and they interact with the DMV again.

Because voting by non-U.S. citizens is so rare, and the citizenship data tracked by these agencies is not current, these types of database matching practices are far more likely to result in eligible U.S. citizens being incorrectly flagged for removal from the voter registration rolls than they are to identify non-U.S. citizens who are registered to vote.  

When Texas tried this approach in 2019, for example, it inaccurately announced that it had found nearly 100,000 registered non-U.S. citizens on its voter rolls. But the state walked back this claim almost immediately, admitting that it had already confirmed the U.S. citizenship of at least 25,000 of the voters identified through the initial motor vehicle record match.

And of the 98,000 individuals originally identified as non-U.S. citizens — based on voter registration records going back to 1996 — only 80 were actually determined to be ineligible to vote, and none of that group are known to have voted.  

When the dust settled, the policy clearly harmed tens of thousands of Texas voters — without making our elections more safe or secure. Again, across the country, state election officials already have existing systems in place to verify voter eligibility and keep our elections secure.

At the end of the day, our democracy works best when every American can participate, so we need policies that protect the freedom to vote — not deprive voters of this basic American freedom. 

Jonathan is CLC's Director, Voting Advocacy and Partnerships.