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Glitch let ineligible immigrants vote in Philly elections, officials say

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt says he found a glitch in PennDOT's approach to "moter-voter" that may prompt some people, in this country legally but not eligible to vote, to register to vote anyway.

Anthony Clark (left), chairman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, and Commissioner Al Schmidt confer during a meeting in December.
Anthony Clark (left), chairman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, and Commissioner Al Schmidt confer during a meeting in December.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

A top Philadelphia elections official said Wednesday that hundreds of legal but otherwise ineligible immigrants registered to vote in the last decade, and nearly half cast ballots they shouldn't have.

Commissioner Al Schmidt blamed that on what he said was a PennDot glitch that enabled legal permanent residents to register to vote at kiosks when they applied or renewed for driver's licenses or registrations.

Only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote, but those in the country legally are able to obtain driver's licenses in Pennsylvania.

It was unclear how many noncitizens might have registered to vote at PennDot offices statewide, or how many of them had cast ballots. A Pennsylvania Department of State review is underway, but the department said late Wednesday it had records indicating 1,160 people statewide since 1972 had requested cancellation of their voter registrations because they were not citizens.

Schmidt, the lone Republican commissioner, said he has been speaking with the department since July about the problem.

For months during the campaign season, President Trump singled out the city as a hot spot for voter fraud​, alleging widespread vote-rigging and claiming that if he lost, Philadelphia would be to blame. But voter-fraud incidents here tend to be more pedestrian: recent cases included poll workers who added six extra votes to a voting machine in 2014 and a woman who voted on behalf of her mother.

Schmidt noted that fraud requires a knowing intent by a voter ineligible to register or cast a ballot.

"All voter fraud is an irregularity; not all voter irregularities are fraud," Schmidt said, adding that the registrations and votes were still illegal. "Regardless of the intent, the damage is still the same."

The problem found Schmidt and his agency.

Three hundred and seventeen voters have contacted the City Commissioners, which oversees elections in Philadelphia, since 2006 to have their registrations canceled because, while they were in the country legally, they were foreign citizens ineligible to vote.

Schmidt's data date back to 2006 because that was when Pennsylvania started using the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, which provides reliable statistics about voters in the state.

Of the 317, Schmidt's office has documented 220 — either through direct contact or via an attorney — who were registered to vote from 2006 to 2017.  Forty-four of those people voted in one election while 46 voted in more than one election.

All of the 317 registrations have been canceled, Schmidt said.

No election for public office in the city during that time had a close enough margin that a result could have been changed by the number of improperly registered people voting, Schmidt said.

In Allegheny County, Elections Director Mark Wolosik on Wednesday said there have been 98 cases of noncitizens canceling their voter registrations since 2006. The county was not able Wednesday afternoon to determine how many, if any, of those residents cast ballots. Wolosik said the county became aware of those cases when immigrants, or their attorneys, realized the error after being asked about their registration during the citizenship process.

Schmidt and his staff traced the problem in Philadelphia primarily to legal residents who are not American citizens, visiting PennDot offices to obtain or update driver's licenses. That accounted for 168 of the 220 people who contacted the City Commissioners to cancel registrations. The 52 others registered to vote by other means, Schmidt said.

"For the majority of these people, it's completely plausible to believe they thought they were eligible to vote," Schmidt said, because they were offered the option to register after giving PennDot documentation that they were in this country legally but not citizens.

The 220 people produced immigration documents to show they were eligible for driver's licenses. Later in the process, the applicants were asked to check a box on an electronic kiosk if they also wanted to register to vote.

This is known as "motor-voter," a federal law passed in 1993 that went into effect in 1995 to help encourage voter registration by pairing it with the process to obtain a driver's license.

Schmidt said 155 of the ineligible voters registered as Democrats, 23 as Republicans, and 42 as independents or members of smaller political parties.

The largest number of votes by non-U.S. citizens in the city was 47 in the 2008 general election, in which Barack Obama was elected president.  That was .0065 percent of the 718,025 votes cast in that race in Philadelphia.

A PennDot spokeswoman on Wednesday referred questions to the Department of State, noting that her agency "is not involved with processing the applications" for voter registration.

The Department of State, in a statement Wednesday, said it was "aware of these potential inadvertent registrations and we are conducting our own review of the system used to assist PennDot customers with voter registration."

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Pedro Cortes was unavailable to take questions, according to a spokeswoman.

The department's statement pointed to changes it made in August 2016, changing the order of questions on PennDot kiosks to "immediately" ask if applicants for driver's licenses are U.S. citizens and increasing the number of languages used to ask that question.

Those changes have been implemented in 89 of PennDot's 97 offices and the rest will be made "in a few weeks," according to the department.

The issue of noncitizens being encouraged to register to vote was raised during a state House State Government Committee hearing Oct. 4, one month before the 2016 general election.  State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Butler County Republican who chairs that committee and has long railed about voter fraud, told Cortes that one of his constituents received a mailer suggesting she register even though she was not a citizen.

Cortes responded by talking about his office working with PennDot on preventing ineligible voters from registering, but noted "no system is 100 percent fail-proof."  Cortes said at the time some noncitizens may "inadvertently register" to vote at PennDot while obtaining or updating a driver's license.

Schmidt said he suspected people notified the City Commissioners that they were improperly registered because they were asked by the federal government, while seeking citizenship, if they had ever been registered to vote in this country.

He also said some of the people who were improperly registered in the past may have become citizens by now. But incorrectly registering to vote while ineligible could jeopardize a person's application for citizenship.

"The current voter registration process at PennDot is both harmful to election integrity and to members of the immigrant community seeking citizenship," Schmidt said.

Staff writer Aubrey Whelan and Chris Potter of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this article.