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Philly official: State should immediately identify immigrants improperly registered to vote

City Commissioner Al Schmidt on Thursday called on the Pennsylvania Department of State to identify and contact noncitizens who registered to vote due to a flawed procedure at PennDot centers across the state.

Only U.S. citizens can legally vote.
Only U.S. citizens can legally vote.Read moreRick Bowmer / AP

The woman fled Togo, a West African nation, was granted political asylum in the United States in 2005, and then was granted lawful permanent residency status three years later.

Green card in hand, she went to the West Oak Lane PennDot center to obtain a driver's license. She was surprised, according to her lawyer, when a clerk asked if she also wanted to register to vote.

"I asked, 'Can I vote? I only have a green card," the woman wrote in an affidavit in 2014, seeking to cancel her voter registration. "The person responded affirmatively and I said, 'OK, I would like to vote.'"

Her experience illustrates how an unknown number of noncitizens, living in the nation legally, were improperly signed up to vote in Pennsylvania as part of the state's "motor-voter" program, which is now under review.

City Commissoner Al Schmidt, a Republican, on Thursday predicted that "many thousands [of noncitizens] remain registered to vote in Pennsylvania."

The refugee, whose affidavit was provided by Schmidt, wanted the city agency overseeing elections to cancel her voter registration to avoid problems with U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services.

Schmidt called on the Pennsylvania Department of State to release to the 67 county election boards the names of all noncitizens registered to vote. He also wants the department to directly contact the registered noncitizens.

"Leaving this matter unaddressed is both harmful to election integrity and to members of the immigrant community seeking citizenship," Schmidt said.

Schmidt on Wednesday said he had found that 317 noncitizens canceled their voter registrations in Philadelphia from 2006 to 2017 after improperly registering while visiting PennDot offices to obtain or update driver licenses.

The Pennsylvania Department of State said it had records indicating 1,160 noncitizens statewide had canceled their voter registrations because they were ineligible to cast ballots.

While Schmidt, the lone Republican on the three-member panel that runs Philadelphia elections, sees the problem as an inadvertent outcome of a flawed PennDot procedure, others from his party see a more sinister motivation.

"I am tired of being told that their are no cases of election fraud and irregularities by the same people who cause election fraud or turn a blind eye to it," Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said in an email Thursday.

DiGiorgio said he asked Gov. Wolf during the summer to work with President Trump's Election Integrity Commission to ensure that voting in the state "is free of fraud." He renewed that call Thursday, saying Wolf should also "immediately investigate these unacceptable PennDot operational flaws."

J.J. Abbott, Wolf's press secretary, pushed back.

"Let's be clear: This motor-voter glitch has existed for decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations," Abbott said. "Gov. Wolf's administration is actually taking action to fix it."

Motor-voter refers to a federal law that went into effect in 1995 to help encourage voter participation by pairing registration with the issuing of driver's licenses.

Hans von Spakowsky, a member of Trump's election commission, said the improper registrations represent "more evidence that we have a problem."

Trump, while campaigning last year, frequently said he could only lose if opponents cheated in places like Pennsylvania. After winning the presidency, Trump claimed without evidence that he lost the popular vote because of fraud.

Von Spakowsky, speaking after a debate on immigration at the University of Pittsburgh late Wednesday, noted that the noncitizens who had registered to vote were only discovered because they alerted election officials. He wondered how many others didn't.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," he said.

David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group in Philadelphia, considers the matter overblown, since the Department of State knew about it and is moving to address it.

He worried the issue would be "blood in the water for sharks who are spinning conspiracy theories" about voter fraud.

Only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote. But noncitizens in the country legally are allowed to obtain driver's licenses from states.

Noncitizens visiting PennDot offices are required to provide documentation that they are in the country legally. Later in the process, when they are called up to be photographed, an electronic kiosk asks them to answer a series of questions.

One of them: Would you like to register to vote? When the refugee from Togo answered "yes," she found herself on the voter rolls.

Schmidt said that prompted many to think they were eligible.

Of the 317 noncitizens who registered in Philadelphia since 2006, 220 have provided documentation to Schmidt's office to cancel those registrations. Forty-four of them had voted in one election; 46 had voted in more than one.

The Department of State on Thursday said it was "made aware of challenges with the motor-voter system that could be confusing and lead to inadvertent voter registrations" after consulting with county election officials and other "stakeholders" in 2015, when Wolf took office.

It could not say how many noncitizens were registered or had voted, or when the review will be completed.

The department said it started changing PennDot kiosks in August 2016 to make "Are you a citizen?" the first question asked; a "no" answer blocks an applicant from being registered to vote. It also added that question in more languages.

For the refugee from Togo, who now lives in North Dakota, the danger of inadvertently registering to vote comes across in her affidavit. It was filed by an attorney two days before her 2014 deadline for an application for citizenship.

The refugee found out from the federal government that she was not allowed to vote. She admitted voting in the 2008 presidential election.

"I truly did not know that you had to be a U.S. citizen to vote, and I am terribly sorry for my misunderstanding," she wrote. "This country has given me so much and so I would never do anything purposefully to jeopardize my status or to take advantage of the government."

The refugee got her wish. According to her lawyer, she became a citizen on July 17, 2015.

Chris Potter of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this article.

Philly & Voter Fraud

  1. "I just hear such reports about Philadelphia," Donald Trump said in Wilkes-Barre last October. "I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us."

  2. Actually, it's pretty rare. Eight people since 2013 have been charged with voter fraud.

  3. The biggest case? In the 2014 general election, Democratic poll workers in one 18th Ward division added six votes to a machine so it matched the number of voters who signed in.

  4. The fraud changed no races.