A historic 10% of eligible US voters this November will be foreign-born

Naturalized citizens are an increasing part of the electorate.
Naturalized citizens are an increasing part of the electorate.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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The 2020 US presidential race will have a bigger share of eligible foreign-born voters than any other election in more than a century. This year they will make up about 10% of all eligible voters, up from 6% in 2000, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.

The swift increase has two main causes. One, there are a lot more immigrants in the US today than 50 years ago. When they naturalize as US citizens, they gain the right to vote. In 1970, immigrants made up less than 5% of the US population. Today, that share is about 14%, close to the recorded high of 15% in 1890. The rise is mostly the result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished immigrant quotas by country and made it easier for immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa to come to the US.

The second reason is that more of the immigrants who are eligible for citizenship are getting naturalized. The share of those getting naturalized rose from 62% in 2005 to 67% 2015. The biggest increases came from those born in India (68% to 80%) and Ecuador (55% to 68%). The increasing naturalization rate may be partially a result of the higher education levels of recent immigrants. Immigrants with Bachelor’s degrees are more likely to get naturalized.

Foreign-born voters come from all across the globe. Mexico, the leading country of origin for these voters, accounts for 16% of all eligible immigrants. It is followed by the Philippines (6%), India (5%), China (5%,) and Vietnam (5%).

At 52 years old, the median eligible immigrant voter is actually older than the average US-born voter, who is 47, according to Pew. Their older age is partially because many of these immigrants came as adults and then had to wait five years before they could become naturalized. Nearly 70% have been in the country for more than 20 years. About 36% have Bachelor’s degrees, compared to just 30% of eligible US-born voters. Immigrant voters also tend to have slightly higher incomes than those born in the US.

Immigrants are more likely to be Democrats. A 2014 survey found that almost 50% of immigrants lean Democratic, compared to about 20% leaning Republican and another 30% leaning independent—the survey included unnaturalized immigrants. Political science researchers find that more immigrants lead to an increase in the number of Democrats elected in a state, since immigrants tend to vote for liberals, and expanded immigration has not meaningfully changed how US-born people vote.

With the 2020 presidential election likely to be close, foreign-born voters could make a difference, if they vote. Only 54% of the eligible foreign-born population turned out to vote in 2016 compared to 62% of those born in the US. A second term for Trump could turn on whether Biden can inspire this group. The three states with the highest share of foreign-born eligible voters—California, New Jersey, and New York—are nearly guaranteed for Democrats, but immigrants make up more than 14% of the electorate in swing states Florida and Nevada.