Yesterday, Ohio’s secretary of state, Jon Husted, issued a press release congratulating himself for finding 385 non-citizens who were registered to vote in 2016, 82 of whom allegedly voted. Husted then goes on to claim there may be more illegally registered non-citizens on the Ohio voting rolls, but the federal government won’t give him access to their non-citizens database to search.
If you’ve been following this issue at all, you can probably guess what we have to say about it.
Scale Matters. Three hundred and eighty-five may sound like a large number in some contexts—bank fees, for example—but not when we’re talking about a state voter file. As Carrie Davis, Executive Director of the Ohio League of Women Voters, noted in a press release yesterday:
“In November 2016, Ohio had 7,861,025 registered voters and, of those, 5,607,641 cast ballots in the November election. Husted’s 385 registered amounts to 0.004898% of total registered voters, and his alleged 82 votes cast amount to 0.001462% of the 5,607,641 total votes cast in November 2016.”
So, while the tone of Husted’s announcement is troubling, the findings of the investigation seem to bear out his own saner words from just one month ago: “While we should always continue to work to improve our election system, we don’t need to perpetuate the myth that voter fraud is in the millions,” he said. “It exists, but only in isolated cases.”
Unreliable Numbers. If history is any guide, Husted’s claim of 385 registered non-citizens will fall apart on closer scrutiny. In 2012, Husted “identified” 145 non-citizens registered to vote. However, Ohio prosecutors subsequently undertook only 17 investigations, and charges were ultimately brought against only four individuals, who pled guilty. (Given his success rate at identifying illegal voters, you would think Husted would tone down the self-congratulations.)
Moreover, there have been no such investigations yet of the individuals on Mr. Husted’s recent list, and it is therefore premature to assert definitively that these individuals are actually non-citizens. One of the reasons prosecutions under these circumstances are so low is that, often times, individuals identified as potential non-citizens turn-out to have been recently naturalized, and therefore, have every right to register and vote. Per Mr. Husted’s statement, the state used information from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles to generate this list of alleged non-citizens. Data from the state motor vehicle departments, however, is often out of date. Individuals who are non-citizens when they obtain their licenses may then become citizens, but then not update their citizenship status with the DMV until their license expires. (In Ohio, it is only necessary to renew your driver’s license every 4 years.)
Legal, Permanent Residents. In recklessly fueling the current hysteria about undocumented immigrants, Husted leaves out one important point: to the extent that there are in fact a few non-citizens on the voter registration rolls, they are almost always legal permanent residents of the United States. (This was the case with all 17 of the cases Husted cites from 2013.) History has shown that, when such legal residents register to vote, it is almost always because they were confused about the eligibility requirements. While it is still not permissible for them to register and vote, such individuals are not in this country illegally, nor do they have criminal intent to influence the election. This rare occurrence might speak to a need to better inform legal residents about voting requirements, but it does not indicate any criminal or fraudulent activity.
Citizenship Database. Although we might therefore expect Mr. Husted to exercise caution with his allegations, he instead implies there may be even more illegal registrants lurking in the Ohio voter rolls. He would find them, he suggests, if only he was given “real-time access to accurate, searchable, electronic [federal] databases of non-citizens who have valid Social Security numbers so that they may distinguish between citizens and lawfully-present non-citizens.”
As Mr. Husted well knows, there is no such thing as an “accurate” database of non-citizens with valid Social Security numbers. There is a cluster of federal databases known collectively as SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements); however, it is not at all accurate. The SAVE system contains a significant percentage of records of individuals who were non-citizens at one time, but are now citizens of the United States with a legal right to participate in our democracy. As noted, there is no evidence yet that the individuals on Mr. Husted’s list have not recently become citizens. Matching state voter files against the federal SAVE system has proven notoriously unreliable, and would end with the wrongful and illegal removal of eligible US citizens.
Secretary Husted very likely exaggerates the number of non-citizen registrants and voters. He misleads his constituents about the availability of a reliable and accurate federal database of non-citizens. He fails to explain that the few non-citizens who are registered are, primarily, confused permanent residents.
The result is to reinforce Trump’s repeatedly debunked claim of widespread illegal voting, and further fan the flames of anti-immigrant hysteria. That’s irresponsible, and it’s disappointing behavior from an official who admitted, in January, that “there’s no evidence to support any of [Trump’s] concerns, at least in Ohio.”