Debunking the Myths Surrounding Noncitizen Voting

Many Republicans claim that enough noncitizens are voting in U.S. elections to influence the results and that in order to stop them, states and the federal government must require people to provide proof of citizenship documents to vote. 

There are two major issues with this assertion. 

First, it is already illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal elections, and there is no concrete evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are voting. 

Second, these requirements do not just keep noncitizens from voting, they also stop eligible voters who don’t have easy access to citizenship documents — like passports and birth certificates — from voting. 

That’s the most dangerous part for democracy.

Where This Conversation Picked Up Steam

The discussion about noncitizen voting picked up steam in 2020, but it grabbed national attention when House Speaker Mike Johnson (R) and other Republicans started pushing the Safeguard American Voter Eligibility Act — otherwise known as the SAVE Act, a couple of months ago. 

Johnson first announced that Congressional Republicans were working on a federal voter suppression bill targeting noncitizens from voting in April alongside former President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

“As we approach the 2024 elections, the American people must have absolute certainty in the integrity of our election system,” Johnson said in a statement. “This bill would fortify federal elections by ensuring that only American citizens vote in American elections.”

The Committee on House Administration advanced the bill to the House floor on May 23, and it is scheduled for a vote this week.

Myth #1: Noncitizens Are Illegally Voting in High Numbers in Federal Elections

“Illegal immigrants and non-citizens across the nation are being improperly registered to vote, allowing them to cast illegitimate ballots in federal elections,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said in a statement about the SAVE Act. 

Lee and other Republicans made these statements without providing evidence to back up their claims.

“[House Speaker Mike Johnson] declared that he knows intuitively that a lot of noncitizens are voting in federal elections, but it’s not been something that is easily provable,” Rep. Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.) said at a hearing in May. 

In a document outlining why the SAVE Act should be passed, Johnson only provided one piece of data backing up his noncitizen voting claims: a 2014 survey that studied the 2008 and 2010 elections. 

The survey, conducted by a few researchers at small universities, found that “some noncitizens participate in U.S. elections, and that this participation has been large enough to change meaningful election outcomes including Electoral College votes, and Congressional elections.”

The researchers stated their “best estimate” was that over 6% of noncitizens had voted in the 2008 general election.

Johnson did not provide any other evidence to corroborate this information. Even if the results of this ten-year-old survey are accurate, that does not prove that noncitizens are voting in elections now. 

Additionally, Johnson said in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Virginia, hundreds of noncitizens have recently been removed from the voter rolls, but some may have been removed because their registration data is out-of-date, not because they aren’t U.S. citizens. 

Also, numerous reports and studies have shown that instances of noncitizen voting in federal elections are extremely rare.

“My general sense is that there isn’t an evidence-based argument for the need to make these laws more strict,” said Michael Hanmer, a professor and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland. “It seems like it’s driven more by politics.”

Myth #2: Most Americans Have Easy Access to Citizenship Documents

Hanmer stated that many people believe that most eligible voters have the proof of citizenship documents they need.

“It turns out that’s not really the case. There are a lot of people across demographic and political lines who don’t have the ID that they would need,” Hanmer said.

A survey conducted from September to October 2023 reveals that one in 10 eligible U.S. voters can’t easily access documents to prove their citizenship, like passports or birth certificates.

Around 15 to 18 million adults in the U.S. don’t have access to these documents for a variety of reasons, including complicated documentation requirements, expensive fees, limited availability of ID services, confusing state policies and racial and gender discrimination, according to a 2022 report from The Movement Advancement Project.

These barriers disproportionately impact people in minority groups, especially voters of color, according to the report.

“If there are elected officials who are concerned about election integrity, I hope they look at this data,” Lauren Kunis, CEO of VoteRiders, said. “I hope they fully understand the impact of what they are pushing for access to the ballot box for all eligible American voters.”

Kunis, who leads a non-partisan, non-profit organization ensuring that all citizens can exercise their right to vote, said there are numerous groups of people impacted by this that may not immediately come to mind.

For example, young people and students living in dorms or apartments may have proof of citizenship at a more permanent home and can’t access them to register to vote, she said.

Also, she explained that women who change their last name because of marriage or divorce, along with transgender and nonbinary individuals, may not have photo IDs and/or documents that align with their gender identity or legal name.

Arizona Republicans Passed a Proof of Citizenship Law…And It Got Blocked

Arizona passed a voter suppression law, House Bill 2492, in March 2022 that required new voters registering with federal forms to provide proof of citizenship or residency documentation if they wanted to vote in presidential elections or vote early by mail for any office.

In the months following, Democrats and numerous pro-voting groups filed lawsuits challenging the legislation, and all of the cases were consolidated under a case brought by Mi Familia Vota and Voto Latino on March 31, 2022.

The case also challenges another voter suppression law, House Bill 2243, which requires county recorders to cancel a voter’s registration if they receive information that a voter is not qualified to vote or if the county officials have a “reason to believe” that a voter is not a U.S. citizen.

On Sept. 8, 2022, a federal district court temporarily blocked the implementation of H.B. 2243, so it was not in place for the 2022 midterm elections, and on Sept. 14, 2023, the court struck down key provisions of H.B. 2492. 

Then, on Feb. 29, the federal court overturned provisions of H.B. 2492 and 2243, a victory for voters. Due to the ongoing, yearslong litigation, neither of these laws were ever actually implemented.

Then, in May, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Arizona Republicans appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In June, the state of Arizona appealed as well.

On June 28, the district court denied the Republicans’ request for the ruling to be paused while litigation is ongoing, so the decision will remain in effect for now.

Republican States That Continue to Push This Agenda Anyway

Despite the Arizona proof of citizenship law being blocked, other states have still introduced and passed similar legislation.

Last month, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R) signed a bill into law requiring individuals to include proof of citizenship with their voter registration applications starting on Jan. 1, 2025.

New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill that would remove all exceptions to its proof of citizenship requirement to register to vote. It has been sent to the governor’s office.

Additionally, the Republican-led state legislatures of Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wisconsin passed amendments to their state constitutions stating that only U.S. citizens can vote in elections. The amendments will go on each state’s ballot in November. What happens next is up to voters. 

Also, the Tennessee secretary of state’s (R) office sent a letter last month to 14,000 individuals whose records appear to reflect they aren’t U.S. citizens.

The letter asked noncitizens to use an enclosed form to request that their name be removed from the voter roll, and U.S. citizens were asked to provide a copy of a birth certificate, U.S. passport or other listed form of documentation to confirm citizenship.

“At its core, it is voter intimidation,” Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), who’s running for U.S. Senate, said about the letters.

Some Believe The GOP Has An Ulterior Motive

At a hearing about the SAVE Act, Brennan Center for Justice President and CEO Michael Waldman argued it’s not a coincidence that this argument about noncitizen voting has started to gain attention this year.

Why is it happening now? It’s being pushed preemptively, I believe, to set the stage for undermining the legitimacy of the 2024 election this year,” Waldman said. “The Big Lie is being pre-deployed.

Morelle, a ranking member of the committee on House Administration, agreed during the hearing that the GOP’s agenda is promoting Trump’s “Big Lie.”

“MAGA extremists are laying the groundwork to overturn the 2024 election,” Morelle said. “The coup starts here.”

Republicans claiming there is a massive amount of voter fraud and questioning how valid previous election results have been because of that is harmful for voters, Hanmer noted.

“If you’re constantly told that the system doesn’t work, I don’t think that’s necessarily strong motivation for people to show up and vote,” Hanmer said.

What Happens Next?

Many of these measures won’t be settled in time to impact the 2024 election, but they could affect future elections. If proof of citizenship is required to register to vote in a state, like Louisiana, then numerous eligible voters could be disenfranchised, taking away their voices in our democracy.

As in Arizona, Democrats and pro-voting groups will likely continue to file lawsuits and challenge laws and constitutional amendments as they are passed and go into effect.

On the national level, if the SAVE Act passes the Republican-controlled House, it will likely not pass the Senate, which has a Democratic majority. Even if this bill doesn’t go anywhere, Republicans have made it clear this discussion will not end anytime soon.