Since Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote in November, our new commander-in-chief has consistently attacked the legitimacy of popular vote totals that showed his rival, Hillary Clinton, well ahead of him on election day. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted in November. Although he has doubled down on the claim in several subsequent statements, offering an estimate of three to five million illegal votes and complaints about specific states, Trump has failed to provide evidence of widespread fraud.
Myrna Pérez, a Texas native and civil rights lawyer, won’t take the president at his word. As head of the Voting Rights and Elections project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, Pérez has seen states around the country—Texas included—rushing to respond to voter fraud threats. “As someone who’s driven by data, as someone who researches elections, as someone who is in the business of making sure our elections represent the voices of actual Americans, I’m very troubled at the policies we see that seem to not have any science or data behind them,” Pérez says.
Pérez, a graduate of San Antonio’s Douglas MacArthur High School who now teaches at Columbia and NYU law schools, decided to check if Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud had any empirical backing. Her team at the Brennan Center reached out to all 44 counties in the U.S. that are home to more than 100,000 non-citizens. The team also contacted several of the largest and most diverse counties in the three states—California, New Hampshire, and Virginia—where Trump made specific claims of “serious voter fraud.” Forty-two counties responded to Perez’s queries, including Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, and El Paso counties in Texas. The counties Pérez’s team interviewed accounted for over 23.5 million votes in the 2016 election. However, the county elections administrators reported a combined total of only 30 fraudulent noncitizen votes in 2016—about .00001 percent of the votes totaled.
“Noncitizen voting in Texas, as in the rest of the country, is rare,” Pérez concludes. As for the nationwide total of fraudulent votes, she says her methodology doesn’t offer a reliable estimate, but that there is no way it’s three to five million people. “Not even close,” she says.
Pérez’s criticisms are echoed by elections administrators around Texas—the people work to assure that eligible voters can cast a ballot and ineligible voters cannot. “I have not seen the numbers to support that,” says El Paso County elections administrator Lisa Wise, referring to Trump’s three to five million claim. “The integrity of elections is a priority for this department, and I believe that it is intact until I see differently.” Bexar County elections administrator Jacquelyn Callanen also backs that sentiment. “I welcome the light being shined on this, to show that our records are well-maintained,” Callanen says. “We stand for integrity. We take such pride and we do such, I think, a magnificent job of list maintenance and voter participation.”
There’s reason to believe that Trump’s baseless accusations reflect more than a wounded ego. Earlier this month, Trump convened a presidential Election Integrity Commission, to be co-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach, a rising star of the national Republican Party, has a long history as an architect of laws that racially profile Latinos, going back to Arizona’s SB 1070 “show me your papers” law in 2010, which was ruled unconstitutional. More recently, in Kansas, Kobach has led the push for a new generation of restrictive voter registration laws that purportedly aim to crack down on non-citizen voting but, in reality, mostly just make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote. Such laws, which require voters to submit proof of citizenship when registering to vote, are popular with Republican politicians who see political advantage in shrinking the pool of registered voters. “We have seen similar laws be introduced in Texas,” Pérez says.
Pérez illustrates the potential for voter suppression from Kobach’s new wave of “show me your papers” laws by invoking a familiar image of a voter registration drive. “Imagine someone outside the HEB saying, ‘Hey, do you want to register to vote?’” Pérez says. “The would-be voter says yes. They’d then have to hand over a copy of their birth certificate or their passport to a complete stranger, who then has to put it together and mail into the election office. That’s never going to happen. It’s going to massively diminish the number of people that register.”
Pérez would prefer to see a system of so-called automatic voter registration, where all government agencies, from the Department of Motor Vehicles to Veteran’s Affairs, Medicare, Medicaid, and others contribute to encouraging citizens to register and monitoring each individual’s address and eligibility.
Pushing back against politicians stoking fears of non-citizen voting is complicated, because non-citizen voting does happen on occasion, and reducing those instances is an obvious public good. “We see it every so often, yes. Not in great number by any stretch of the imagination, but periodically, we do see it,” says Callanen, who has served in her role in Bexar County for twelve years.
Usually, Callanen says, her office learns of non-citizen voting activity when an individual goes through the citizenship process and her department is asked to furnish a record of voting activity for the applicant. Occasionally, that record will show a history of illegal voting. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent, there’s no voting history, but occasionally we get that one, two, three people within a year,” Callanen says. Therefore, though she saw no evidence of voter fraud in 2016, it is possible that a handful of cases may come to light over the next few years.
Earlier this year, a voter fraud case was actually prosecuted in Tarrant County—a rarity in Texas and around the country. Rosa Maria Ortega, a non-citizen with a permanent resident visa, was convicted of voting illegally in 2012 and 2014. Ortega, who has a sixth grade education, claims she didn’t know she was breaking the law. Nonetheless, a judge sentenced her to eight years in prison, after which she will very likely be deported and separated from her four children.
Pérez sees a similarity between that sentence and the draconian proof-of-citizenship voter registration laws being pushed by Kobach and now, it seems, by the Trump administration. “I don’t want non-citizens voting either,” Pérez says. “Nobody does. I don’t think that’s the dispute. The question is, how big is the worry, and what’s the response? If you were afraid of an ant bite, you wouldn’t use bear spray in a room. You’d be choking and unable to breathe.”