In the final stretch before Iowa’s caucuses next Monday, the former Republican president has repeatedly suggested that Democrats are encouraging migrants to flow into the country illegally in order to register them to vote in the 2024 election.
The unsupported claim, which Trump and other Republicans have carted out in past election years, is resonating with voters who agree that security is lacking at both the border and the polls. Experts say it also can be damaging, giving undue traction to false stereotypes and extremist ideologies such as the racist " great replacement theory."
The GOP frontrunner flicked at the idea of Democrats registering unauthorized migrants to vote at least twice over the weekend in Iowa.
"I think they really are doing it because they want to sign these people up to vote. I really do," Trump said in Mason City on Friday. "They can’t speak a word of English for the most part, but they’re signing them up."
The comments came after he posted recently on his Truth Social platform that "crazed" Democrats are allowing unvetted migrants into the country "so they can vote, vote vote."
His message is welcome to some of Trump's Iowa supporters who are still angry about the outcome of the 2020 election. Trump continues to promote the lie that widespread fraud cost him reelection, despite multiple audits, reviews and recounts in the battleground states where he disputed the results, dozens of failed legal challenges and his own attorney general saying there was no evidence to back up the claims.
Michell Harvilla, awaiting Trump's appearance in Clinton, Iowa, on Saturday, said she "absolutely" believes Democrats favor allowing people into the country illegally to influence the 2024 election.
"I fully believe the last one was rigged," said the 58-year-old middle school library and media director, who caucused for Ted Cruz in 2016 but voted for Trump twice.
Billionaire Elon Musk also has pushed the narrative on his social media platform X in recent days, claiming that Democrats are "importing voters."
The Trump campaign didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. In response to an email directed to Musk, the platform sent only an automated response.
These claims ignore the facts around noncitizen voting in federal elections, which is illegal and remains exceedingly rare even as it is thoroughly scrutinized, according to Sean Morales-Doyle, director of voting rights at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Anyone registering to vote in the U.S. must attest under penalty of perjury that they are a U.S. citizen, Morales-Doyle said. Lying is punishable by fines, imprisonment and deportation, he said — such steep penalties that very few people are willing to accept the risk.
On top of that, federal law requires states to regularly maintain their voter rolls and remove anyone ineligible, a process that identifies immigrants living in the country illegally. Even with this and other vetting processes in place, only a small number of noncitizen voters have been uncovered — evidence that Trump's theory has no teeth, Morales-Doyle said.
In 2017, the Brennan Center examined 42 local jurisdictions around the country in the 2016 election, including some of the most populous counties in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. Of 23.5 million votes cast, election officials found only about 30 cases of potential noncitizen voting that they referred for prosecution or further investigation.
More recent investigations also haven’t shown proof of widespread noncitizen voting. A Georgia audit of its voter rolls conducted in 2022 found fewer than 2,000 instances of noncitizens attempting to register to vote for 25 years, none of which succeeded. Millions of new Georgia voters registered during that period.
Occasional instances in which noncitizens have been found to cast ballots illegally or attempted to register captured widespread attention, helping feed the narrative that they are voting in large numbers. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Colorado’s secretary of state mistakenly sent postcards to about 30,000 noncitizens that encouraged them to register to vote, a problem apparently connected to the state's driver’s license database. The office said no noncitizens would be allowed to register if they tried.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, an organization that encourages voter participation among Latinos, said it hasn't found evidence of noncitizens voting in its decades of advocacy work.
"The Latino and immigrant communities know the law," the group said in an emailed statement.
Suggesting that non-English speakers are somehow less qualified to vote than other populations also is misleading, said Morales-Doyle. The Voting Rights Act bans voting discrimination against language minorities and builds in requirements for language assistance at the polls, he said.
Federal law doesn’t stop states or municipalities from granting noncitizens the right to vote in local races. Some have, among them several cities in Maryland and Vermont, while several states ban the practice. New York City passed a law in 2022 that would allow legally documented noncitizens and "Dreamers" to vote for mayor and other elected officials, but a judge blocked the move.
On the flip side, some states and federal lawmakers have sought to require voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship when they register. But these efforts have been challenged by advocates and blocked by federal courts for the burden they impose on voters.
The Brennan Center and other advocacy groups say proof-of-citizenship requirements disenfranchise people when many eligible voters don't have birth certificates or other applicable documents at hand. They say providing citizenship proof is an unnecessary step when research shows noncitizens are not voting in significant numbers.
Trump's claims that noncitizens are casting ballots aren't new. After the 2016 election, he falsely claimed in a private meeting with congressional leaders that he would have won the popular vote if it weren't for the votes of 3 million to 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Yet the idea may be especially effective with his base now, as videos of migrants traveling to the border inundate social media amid a massive surge in migration through the U.S. border with Mexico that the nation's leaders are still struggling to address.
An estimated 10.5 million people were living illegally in the United States in 2021, according to Pew Research Center’s latest figures, published in November. That snapshot was taken before the recent surge of migrants from around the world, a break from the recent past when migrants primarily came from Mexico and Central America.
Millions are in the U.S. seeking asylum or entering on parole, a legal authority granted for humanitarian reasons or when deemed a "significant public benefit." Asylum-seekers and those on parole may be eligible to work but cannot vote. That right is exclusively held for citizens, unless specifically allowed for local elections.
U.S. authorities made 5.9 million arrests for illegal crossings from Mexico from March 2021, when a COVID-inspired lull ended, through November 2023. That included a record-high 2.2 million arrests in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2022. Many people are released to seek asylum in immigration courts, which are backlogged with 3 million cases that take years to decide.
The White House and Congress are negotiating how best to reduce the number of migrants traveling to the southern border. Meanwhile, public confusion around border policy leaves room for false claims to spread, said Jared Holt, a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks online hate, disinformation and extremism.
He said false noncitizen voting claims over the years have helped build support for a more sinister conspiracy theory about a grand plot to diminish the influence of white Americans by replacing them with minorities.
"It’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek way of pushing the great replacement theory, but in a way that has been understood to be less morally repugnant or perceivably more defensible," Holt said. "I don't think you have to scratch very far below the surface to understand what is really being said."
Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Clinton, Iowa, Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.