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Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll January 25, 2017

Sean Spicer wrongly uses Pew study to bolster claim that non-citizens vote in large numbers

Even after being sworn in as president, Donald Trump isn’t letting go of his unsubstantiated belief that millions of people voted illegally in November, costing him the popular vote.

Now, he’s calling for a "major investigation" into voter fraud, he wrote in a Jan. 25 tweet.

We have debunked Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud again and again and again (and again and again and again and again) over the past year. Trump has not yet produced any evidence that supports these claims — because none exists.

In the Jan. 24 daily press briefing, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer how Trump came to believe that it’s possible illegal votes were to blame for his popular vote loss.

"I think there's been studies," Spicer responded. "There's one that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens. There's other studies that have been presented to him. It's a belief he maintains."

Spicer is conflating a couple different studies that have been erroneously used to prop up claims that noncitizens have swayed elections by voting illegally.

There is no study that shows 14 percent of the votes cast in 2008 were cast by noncitizens. That would have added up to more than 18 million fraudulent votes — an implausible assertion, considering the total noncitizen population was about 22.5 million in 2010.

Pew study misinterpreted

The study that "came out of Pew in 2008" actually came out in 2012, and it’s about outdated voter rolls, not fraudulent votes.

The 2012 Pew study — titled, "Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade" —  makes no mention of noncitizens voting or registering to vote.

Rather, it found that about 24 million, or one in every eight, voter registrations in the United States are inaccurate or no longer valid, but it did not find evidence of actual voter fraud. The study was about record-keeping that is badly managed and in disarray.

Here’s what the former director of Pew’s election program said about the study in November:


Featured Fact-check

Old Dominion study contested

The study that shows "14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens" has been widely criticized for its methodology, and Spicer cites the findings incorrectly.

The study Spicer likely meant to reference was conducted by professors at Old Dominion University and published in 2014. The researchers wrote in the Washington Post that about 14 percent of noncitizens in their sample said they were registered to vote, and they deduced that about 6 percent of noncitizens actually voted in the 2008 election. (That would mean somewhere in the ballpark of 1.3 million votes, using Census estimates of the noncitizen population.)

So the study doesn’t show the statistic Spicer says it does. Beyond that, many credible researchers have panned the study as methodologically unsound for using an opt-in Internet poll originally designed to survey citizens and not considering possible survey response error.

In a recent blog post, one of the authors, Old Dominion professor Jesse Richman, said he stands by his study, but "our results suggest that almost all elections in the US are not determined by noncitizen participation, with occasional and very rare potential exceptions."

There might be a problem of noncitizens voting, but it’s not nearly as large as the statistic Spicer cites.

These studies do not prop up Trump’s belief that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote.

Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump. So erasing Trump’s popular-vote deficit requires the assumption that all 3 million of these votes were cast illegally, and every one of them went to Clinton and not Trump.

Further, no official sources or reputable academic sources have produced any evidence of large-scale voter fraud in the 2016 election, and numerous studies have shown that voter fraud is rare.  

Read our full debunking of Trump’s Nov. 28 claim that he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Our ruling

Spicer said, "There's one (study) that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens."

Spicer is both conflating and misquoting two studies: A 2012 Pew report about outdated voter rolls and a 2014 Old Dominion University study that found 6 percent of noncitizens surveyed voted in 2008. The Old Dominion University study has been widely criticized for its methodology.

No study has found the statistic Spicer cites. If 14 percent of all voters in 2008 were noncitizens, that would have to mean that more than 80 percent of America’s noncitizen population voted.

Spicer’s claim is False.

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"There's one (study) that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens."
White House press briefing
Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Our Sources

CQ, White House daily press briefing transcript, Jan. 24, 2017

Pew Center on the States, "Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient, Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade," February 2012

Cook Political Report, "2016 National Popular Vote Tracker," accessed Jan. 25, 2017

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump's Pants on Fire claim that millions of illegal votes cost him popular vote victory," Nov. 28, 2016

PolitiFact, "Fact-check: Did 3 million undocumented immigrants vote in this year's election?" Nov. 18, 2016

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump's Pants on Fire claim of 'large scale voter fraud,’" Oct. 17, 2016

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Which happens more: People struck by lightning or people committing voter fraud by impersonation?," April; 7, 2016

PolitiFact, "Donald Trump wrongly says 14 percent of noncitizens are registered to vote," Oct. 24, 2016

Old Dominion University, "Some thoughts on noncitizen voting," Oct. 19, 2016

Washington Post, "Recidivism Watch: Spicer uses repeatedly debunked citations for Trump’s voter fraud claims," Jan. 24, 2016

Washington Post, "Could noncitizens decide the November election?" Oct. 24, 2014

Washington Post, "Methodological challenges affect study of noncitizens’ voting," Oct. 27, 2014

Washington Post, "Are noncitizens following American election laws?" Oct. 31, 2014

Washington Post, "Trump thinks noncitizens are deciding elections. We debunked the research he’s citing." Oct. 19, 2016

Washington Post, "What can we learn about the electoral behavior of noncitizens from a survey designed to learn about citizens?" Oct. 28, 2014

New York Times, "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers," Jan. 23, 2017

New York Times, "Trump Won’t Back Down From His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts." Jan. 24, 2017

Cooperative Congressional Election Study, "The Perils of Cherry Picking Low Frequency Events in Large Sample Surveys," Nov. 5, 2014

Census, "The Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2010," May 2012

FEC, Popular vote summary, November 2008 election

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Sean Spicer wrongly uses Pew study to bolster claim that non-citizens vote in large numbers

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