Illegal voting in Virginia? Yes. Massive? Doubtful.

For years, Republicans have loudly proclaimed that voter fraud is widespread in U.S. elections – and just as adamantly, Democrats have insisted that such allegations are nonsense.

Last fall, a pair of groups supported by conservatives released a report with the sensational title “Alien Invasion in Virginia: The discovery and coverup of noncitizen registration and voting.” It said illegal voting is a “massive problem”:

“In our small sample of just eight Virginia counties who responded to our public inspection requests, we found 1,046 aliens who registered to vote illegally,” the study said.

“The problem is most certainly exponentially worse because we have no data regarding aliens on the registration rolls for the other 125 Virginia localities. Even in this small sample, when the voting history of this small sample of alien registrants is examined, nearly 200 verified ballots were cast before they were removed from the rolls. Each one of them is likely a felony.”

The report’s startling claims gained traction on some conservative websites as evidence of a rigged election system but were dismissed by Democrats as fiction from the far-right. The study made a splash in Virginia media but was quickly lost in the partisan noise of the presidential election.

In recent weeks, Capital News Service attempted to replicate the study’s methods and found that some noncitizens have indeed voted in Virginia, though not on a massive scale. Using the Freedom of Information Act, voter registration records and voter history data, CNS found that:

• About 240 people who weren’t citizens had been registered to vote in 10 localities, mostly in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area.

• 28 of these noncitizens actually voted in an election before they were removed from the voter registration rolls.

• They cast a total of more than 100 ballots.

CNS did not find evidence that noncitizens voted in massive numbers or tipped an election, as some Republicans have alleged. Indeed, half of the noncitizens who voted in a party primary voted in a Republican primary. However, the records seem to contradict Democrats’ assertion that voter fraud is nonexistent.

Origins of the ‘Alien Invasion’ report

The “Alien Invasion” study was produced by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm based in Indiana, and the Virginia Voter Alliance, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group “dedicated to free and fair elections.”

Logan Churchwell is the foundation’s communications director and founding editor of Breitbart News Texas, a division of the far-right news network. In an email, Churchwell explained the process the foundation used in its study to determine whether noncitizens had voted.

Citing the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the foundation requested documents on people who were registered to vote but later pulled off the voter rolls after officials discovered they were not citizens.

“Once we knew that more than 1,000 voters fit this description, and knew their names, we were able to see in voter files that roughly 200 ballots had been cast from this sample,” Churchwell said.

He believes that is just the tip of the iceberg, since the study covered only a handful of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities.

“After our first survey of 10 jurisdictions, we’re now sweeping statewide,” Churchwell said. “We’re finding more voter registrations that were swept under the rug without calling the cops. We’ll be releasing an update to our study this year.”

To replicate the investigation, CNS sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the 10 localities mentioned in the foundation’s report: the counties of Prince William, Loudoun, Stafford, Bedford, Hanover, Fairfax and Chesterfield and the cities of Alexandria, Roanoke and Manassas.

The requests asked for the names of individuals who were taken off the voter registration rolls since 2015 after it was determined that they were not citizens.

The FOIA requests yielded names and other information on 243 individuals who were removed from the voter rolls because their citizenship had been questioned. Four of them were later reinstated, resulting in a final list of 239 noncitizens who had been registered voters.

But did these individuals actually vote? The answer lies in the state’s voter history database, which shows whether someone has cast a ballot in a particular election.

Reporters do not have access to that database. However, it is available to political campaigns and groups. One such group is NGP VAN, which manages data for Democrats. CNS asked a contact with access to the organization’s database to look up the voter histories of the individuals who had been dropped from Virginia’s voter rolls for not being citizens.

Of the 239 individuals, the voter history database indicated that 28 had voted in an election. In fact, 26 of them voted in last year’s general election.

For about half of these individuals, 2016 was the only election they voted in. But others had been voting for years – including one with a voting history back to 1996. In all, the 28 noncitizens were recorded as having cast a total of 120 ballots.

The CNS research did not corroborate the contention in the “Alien Invasion” report that “nearly 200 verified ballots” were cast by noncitizens before they were removed from the voter rolls. However, it seemed certain that some noncitizens have voted.

Can a noncitizen accidentally register to vote?

It’s possible for noncitizens to get on the voter registration roll by mistake. It can happen when they go to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license or register an automobile.

Under the federally mandated “motor voter” system, people who go to DMV have an opportunity to register to vote. They receive a form with two checkoff questions:

• “Are you a citizen of the United States?”

• “Will you be 18 years of age on or before the next General Election day?”

People who answer “yes” to either question and fill out of the rest of the form will automatically have their name put on the voter rolls. Forms obtained by CNS show that some people who checked the “no” box on the citizenship question but completed the remainder of the form were added to the voter registration rolls.

“When it comes to registration, it’s mostly an honor system whether it’s at the DMV or not,” said Edgardo Cortés, commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections. “There is no comprehensive list of U.S. citizens that is available anywhere.”

Thus, getting on the voter registration rolls is fairly easy. If election officials later learn that someone’s citizenship is in question, they send the person a written warning. The individual then has 14 days to verify his or her citizenship.

Cortés said law enforcement and other government agencies keep in close touch with the Virginia Department of Elections.

Some statistics suggesting fraud seemed false

Most of the “Alien Invasion” report focused on assertions that noncitizens have registered to vote and actually voted. But the study included another alarming statement: “In some Virginia jurisdictions, the number of people registered to vote exceeds the number of citizens eligible to vote.”

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, highlighted that claim in February in a press release to promote legislation requiring Virginians to show additional identification in order to vote. Echoing fellow Republicans at the state and national level, Obenshain said such laws are needed because voter fraud may be widespread.

“There are actually eight localities where the total number of registered voters is greater than the voting age population – the total number of Virginia citizens 18 and older – according to the census data just updated in June of 2016,” stated Obenshain, a Harrisonburg attorney. “Moreover in fifteen other localities, the number of registered voters exceeds 95% of the voting age population of those jurisdictions. Something is clearly wrong.”

It’s the purported statistics that are wrong, according to a researcher at the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, the state’s official source of population and demographic data.

Kathryn Piper Crespin, a research and policy analyst for the Weldon Cooper Center, compared the population data for the U.S. Census Bureau to voter registration data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

“I could find no instance where voter registration in a locality exceeded that locality’s adult population,” Crespin said.

Trump claims there’s voter fraud in Virginia

Obenshain, who lost a 2013 election for attorney general to Democrat Mark Herring by 165 votes of more than 2.2 million cast, isn’t the only government official alleging voter fraud in Virginia. President Donald Trump has tweeted about the issue.

“Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!” Trump tweeted on Nov. 27.

Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by roughly 2.8 million votes last fall. However, Trump administration officials say that’s because 3 million to 5 million noncitizens voted. (Clinton beat Trump by 212,000 votes in Virginia.)

“We know for a fact, you have a massive number of noncitizens registered to vote in this country,” White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order creating a commission to investigate voter fraud. The panel will review “vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”

Vice President Mike Pence will chair the commission. As vice chairman, Trump named Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. Critics say Kobach’s agenda is to suppress the vote of minorities and other people who tend to vote Democratic.

Others have praised Virginia’s voter registration system

It is somewhat ironic that Virginia should find itself in the crosshairs over alleged voter fraud. The commonwealth has been called a model in terms of elections. According to the Election Performance Index developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Virginia is one of the top five states in the country for keeping complete voter registration rolls.

“We have a really comprehensive system in place in Virginia to help identify people who have moved or have died, people who are no longer eligible,” Cortés said. “We spend a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort maintaining clean and accurate registration lists here. I think Virginia has been a model in those respects.”

Despite such record-keeping, Republican politicians and groups such as the Virginia Voter Alliance say the system is rife with fraud. While it seems clear some noncitizens have illegally cast votes, there’s no evidence yet of widespread fraud. But in the meantime, Republicans will continue to push for voter ID laws and other requirements that they believe would prevent noncitizens from voting.
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The Senior Film Series at Sandston Library continues from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. with “Wattstax” (R, 102 minutes, 1973). The movie is related to the book “Respect yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion” by Robert Gordon. Coffee and snacks will be provided. For details, call 501-1990 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text

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