Jesse Richman used to be one of those researchers who only dreamed his work might someday capture national attention—maybe even inspire some sort of systemic change. On Ratemyprofessor.com, his students describe him as tough but fair, a “genius” who was liberal with extra credit projects and went out of his way to offer help.
In 2014, Richman’s world changed when he co-authored a paper on voter fraud that instantly caught fire. At first, he was energized by all the buzz and proud to get his work published. Now, he says, “there are days I wish I hadn’t.”
That’s because his paper, “Do Non-Citizens Vote in US Elections?” which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Electoral Studies, has become a cornerstone of President Trump’s false claim that he would have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” This week White House Press secretary Sean Spicer once again dragged the study to the forefront, noting that a study of the 2008 election showed 14 percent of non-citizens are registered to vote.
That was Richman’s research, all right. The problem, says Richman, who identifies as a political moderate, is that the Trump administration’s interpretation of his report is totally off. “Trump and others have been misreading our research and exaggerating our results to make claims we don’t think our research supports,” Richman says. “I’m not sure why they continue to do it, but there’s not much I can do about that aside from set the record straight.”
In an interview airing tonight on ABC News, President Trump also pointed to a Pew Research report about outdated voter rolls, but according to its own author, that report found no instances of voter fraud.
Now, Richman’s study and the Pew Report are set to become the foundation of the Trump administration’s newly promised investigation into potential voter fraud—whatever Richman says about their interpretation of his findings. The political exploitation of Richman’s work is a blow against intellectual honesty and scientific integrity. What’s more, voting rights advocates fear the investigation it’s being used to prop up could lead to severe voting restrictions in the future.
Blame the Internet
Even before Trump came along, Richman’s research was the subject of controversy. The report, which he wrote about in the Washington Post with his fellow Old Dominion researcher David Earnest, drew its conclusions from the results of the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies, an opt-in online survey of voter behavior. The researchers analyzed responses from citizens and non-citizens in 2008 and 2010 and checked them against existing voter files. What they found suggested that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008, while 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.
Critics quickly jumped on the findings. Among their complaints: The survey on which the research was based was an internet survey meant to include only citizens. In other words, any non-citizens who took the survey were included due to an error anyway, says Michael Jones-Correa, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Some percentage of people who checked the non-citizen box may have done so accidentally.
Even if every survey taker who checked the non-citizen box really wasn’t a citizen, the sample size is far too small to extrapolate those results to the entire non-citizen population of the United States, Jones-Correa and other researchers say. “While internet surveys can accurately represent national populations, they—and any survey—are much less reliable in representing smaller, harder to sample populations like non-citizens in the US,” Jones-Correa says. “This is particularly true because non-citizens are much less likely than the overall population to have access to the internet.”
Richman himself is not backing down from his initial findings. He says that even if some people did check the wrong citizenship box, enough respondents repeatedly reported voting as non-citizens to indicate that some non-citizens do in fact vote. Even some of Richman’s detractors, such as Rick Hasen, author of the Election Law Blog, acknowledge that “non-citizen voting is a real, if relatively small, problem.” Richman says those on the left are just as wrong to reflexively claim that voter fraud doesn’t exist at all as Trump is to continue insisting voter fraud is a national conspiracy.
But Richman is unequivocal that even if his findings are correct, Clinton would have still handily won the popular vote in November, despite the new president’s claims.
“I can’t quite account for the math being so badly wrong in their analyses,” he says of the Trump administration’s interpretation of his report.
Here’s what the math should look like (that is, if Richman’s initial study was accurate—which many researchers doubt). If 6.4 percent of the estimated 20.3 million non-citizens in the US voted and if just 81.8 percent of them voted for Clinton (the percentage who voted for Obama in his 2008 study), that’s an added margin of a little more than 835,000 votes. In other words: Even with all of those supposedly fraudulent ballots, Clinton still would have won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
A Sacred Right
While Trump has been ranting about voter fraud as the cause of his popular vote loss, his press team has been spinning a more palatable narrative about the need for integrity in voting.
“Voting is the most sacred right we have as Americans. It’s the hallmark and the foundation of our democracy,” said Spicer during today’s press briefing. “To ensure we know that every person’s vote counts equally as the next citizen is probably one of the greatest things we can do.”
Richman agrees with that sentiment, but he’s skeptical that the Trump administration, which has aligned itself so clearly with the idea that voter fraud exists, can pull off such a complex and sensitive study. “The worst-case scenario would be a study which is not well done and not done transparently and not credible,” he says. “I’m not that optimistic it can be done successfully.”
He’s also doubtful of any effective policy prescriptions that might come from such research. In his own report, Richman and his co-authors argue that voter identification laws “are unlikely to be effective at preventing electoral participation by non-citizen immigrants.” But he fears that may be just the solution Republican legislators propose in response to any instances of voter fraud that the purported investigation unearths.
Over the last three years, Richman has grown weary of what he describes as the partisan distortions of his research. “We’re perpetually fighting a two-front war,” he says. “One against people, mostly coming from the left, who want to claim on generally quite flimsy grounds that the study is completely invalid, and on the other hand people on the right who want to pretend this study is much more than it is or says much more than it does.”
In the end, Richman says he hopes that any public policy decisions are based on the totality of research, and not on just one cherry-picked study—even if it is the study he wrote.