About That Monkey Cage Item on Non-Citizen Voting, Calm Down

On Friday I linked to an item on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog by Jesse Richman and David Earnest with some provocative findings on the extent of non-citizen voting. The  post was based on this forthcoming article in Electoral Studies.

When I initially posted, the link, I wrote that I would be interested in hearing about the methodology behind this report, because it seems to find a much higher rate of non-citizen voting than any previous evidence I have seen, and the quick description of the piece made me wonder if the authors were making some leaps with their inferences from the evidence.

Conservatives pounced on the report (it even got a link from the Drudge Report) as “proof” of voter fraud and and indication that conservatives were right all along about a voter fraud epidemic. The extra bonus was that the report was appearing in the “liberal” Washington Post! Well here’s a call to slow down.  A few points.

1. I’m really glad the authors did this study and think the issue merits further investigation investigation. As I indicated in my book, The Voting Wars, non-citizen voting is a real, if relatively small, problem. I wrote in a 2012 New York Times oped,

While Republicans have been more to blame than Democrats, partisanship runs both ways. Democrats reflexively oppose efforts to deal with ineligible voters casting ballots, likely out of fear that the new requirements will make it harder for casual voters supporting Democrats to cast a ballot. They have adamantly opposed the efforts of Florida and other states where Republican election officials want to remove noncitizens from the voting rolls. Noncitizen voting is a real, if small, problem: a Congressional investigation found that some noncitizens voted in the close 1996 House race in California between Robert K. Dornan, a Republican, and Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, but not enough to affect the outcome. Unlike impersonation fraud, noncitizen voting cannot be dismissed as a Republican fantasy….Florida should hold off on its plan to remove noncitizens until the off-season. Purging the rolls now risks removing many more eligible citizensthan noncitizens.

2. This was not a story vetted by the Washington Post.  This was not even the regular Monkey Cage bloggers. These were guest bloggers who were (perfectly appropriately) guest blogging about their new article in Electoral Studies. So let’s be careful in terms of who is making what claims.

3. The Electoral Studies piece went through peer review. That’s an indication that someone looked at the authors’ methodology to make sure it passed muster. But peer review is not perfect.  I have heard from a number of political scientists who have raised issues about a number of the assumptions and statistics used in the article. It is not clear to me from what I have heard so far that all of the article’s conclusions (or any of them) will withstand full academic scrutiny.  We’ll have a better sense in a year or two—that’s normal with contested claims made in political science.  There can be no immediate confirmation or rejection of these studies. Caution is in order.

4. Even if the authors’ methodology and conclusions are correct, that does not mean that there is a voter fraud epidemic. It also doesn’t mean that voter id makes sense. To begin with, the authors seem to think voter id would not help.  In a number of states, for example, non-citizens can get drivers’ licenses which can be used for ID.  To handle the problem of non-citizen voting, the key is to confirm citizenship at the time of registration. Some states are doing that, and KS and AZ are fighting the federal government in the Kobach v. EAC case over how this may be done.

5. Checking citizenship before registering voters is not costless. Aside from the costs to the state of such a program and the costs to voters to provide proof of citizenship, such a requirement no doubt disenfranchises eligible voters. The question is whether the number of non-citizens voting justifies the risk of eligible voters who will not be able to (easily or affordably) produce the documentary proof of citizenship needed to vote. That is a balance I suspect conservatives and liberals would strike differently.

6. We could solve this problem and more if we moved to a national voter identification program run by the federal government which paid for all the costs associated with establishing identity and citizenship. I’d couple national voter id, with a unique voter id number and universal voter registration proactively implemented by the federal government. Voters could provide their thumb print if they wanted and use that to verify ID instead of using their actual card.  I don’t expect we will see this program in my lifetime, but I believe it is the sound way to move beyond many of these fights.

UPDATE: More from Paul Gronke.

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