Donald Trump's Cynical, Corrosive 'Election Integrity' Commission

'The danger of the President's commission is that it will mischaracterize extremely rare events as widespread problems.' (Image: Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump's Cynical, Corrosive 'Election Integrity' Commission

Friday, after months of innuendo and exaggeration, President Trump signed an executive order to create a commission to look at "election integrity." It comes after repeated claims from Trump and his team that millions of noncitizens voted in November. They are, as he would say, "Wrong!"

That didn't happen, and the notion that it could without anyone noticing is completely absurd. But what is even more absurd is spending taxpayer dollars on a sham commission to investigate a phantom problem.

In study after study, academics and elections experts have found that noncitizen voting is exceedingly rare. And state elections officials of all political stripes charged with certifying election results, including those in border states, say that he's wrong too.

Arizona's Republican secretary of state, Michele Reagan, said that her state "didn't have widespread voter fraud." In neighboring New Mexico, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, said that the President's allegations were "simply not true."

Given the harmful impact the President's falsehoods have on faith in our elections, the Brennan Center decided to prove, once again, that allegations of widespread fraud, specifically noncitizen voting, are untrue. For the research, we went straight to the source -- local election officials. These largely nonpartisan county and city administrators work on the frontlines of American democracy, interacting with voters and running our elections.

We found that they overwhelmingly rejected the claim that noncitizen voting is a widespread problem threatening the integrity of our elections.

Over the last four months, using a standardized survey process to gather facts from the officials that administer elections in the cities and counties with largest numbers of noncitizens in the country, we looked for fraud in the places where one would expect to find it.

We also took a close look at a diverse set of jurisdictions in three states -- California, New Hampshire and Virginia -- that Trump singled out as having widespread non-citizen voting. If his claims were factual, election officials in these areas would be well-positioned to confirm them. But they did not.

Across the 42 jurisdictions included in our study, officials administer elections to more than 33 million registered voters. In 2016, they tabulated over 23 million votes. Yet we documented just 30 suspected incidents of noncitizens voting. As a percentage, this breaks down to a miniscule portion, 0.0001% of all ballots cast under their watch. That's a one in 800,000 chance of improper voting by a noncitizen. One Texas election official aptly characterized claims of noncitizen voting as "much ado about nothing."

The danger of the President's commission is that it will mischaracterize extremely rare events as widespread problems. According to election officials, when election irregularities do arise, the causes are seldom nefarious in nature.

For instance, several election officials told us that when noncitizens do end up on the voter rolls, it is most often a mistake -- someone checked the wrong box on a form at the DMV or a student registers at a school voter registration drive because all of his friends are registering. Officials also emphasized that, even if someone accidentally ends up the rolls, they likely didn't vote.

Moreover, if noncitizens do vote, they face stiff penalties, including fines, prison time and deportation. It's a high price to pay for someone with aspirations of becoming a citizen, and the risk just simply isn't worth it.

A young mother in Texas was just sentenced to eight years in prison for having registered to vote -- as a Republican -- and voting in two elections. When she completes her sentence, she will likely be deported.

Our findings echo past research that found noncitizen voting accounts for a tiny fraction of a fraction of all ballots. For this reason, policies designed to prevent noncitizen voting -- like proof of citizenship requirements -- are more likely to harm eligible voters than identify ineligible ones.

Our findings also cast doubt on the real purpose of the commission.

While we can all agree that protecting the integrity of our elections is critical, we must identify and address problems based on facts instead of outlandish falsehoods.

Voter roll errors do occur. President Trump has rightly raised concerns about this. Common-sense steps, like implementing automatic voter registration, could help address the issue.

But the President and his team, instead of focusing on facts, spread falsehoods on voter fraud -- through Twitter, on television, and in closed meetings with lawmakers. Now we expect the misinformation campaign to continue, through the work of the President's commission on election integrity.

This is especially disappointing because giving credence to patently untrue rumors about rampant noncitizen voting will only lead to unnecessary barriers between voters and the ballot box. It's suggestive of rhetoric that's been used to justify voter suppression for years. Voting is the most fundamental right in American democracy, and all of us -- especially our President -- must be careful not to undermine free and fair access to the ballot.

© 2023 Brennan Center for Justice