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State review of voter registrations narrows list of potentially ineligible voters to 8,698

According to the state department, the noncitizen immigrants registered to vote at PennDOT centers while getting their driver's licenses — which legal residents, like lawfully present non-U.S. citizens, are allowed to obtain.

Machine inspector Murray Costin, right, closes the curtain as Kym Rosen enters a voting booth at a polling place near 7th and Wolf streets in South Philadelphia. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Machine inspector Murray Costin, right, closes the curtain as Kym Rosen enters a voting booth at a polling place near 7th and Wolf streets in South Philadelphia. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that 11,198 initial records identified for review were potentially not citizens when they registered. That is the number identified for further confirmation of eligibility, not necessarily related to citizenship status.

After reviewing voter records to determine how many people — including those who were not U.S. citizens — may have been ineligible to vote when they registered, the state has narrowed the list to 8,698 people for further review, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The analysis was triggered by the discovery last year of an oversight in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's motor-voter system.

The review first uncovered 11,198 potentially ineligible voters on the rolls, prompting the agency to undertake a process of confirming registrations. That resulted in 2,500 people being removed from the list recently. But about 8,700 of those registrants remain on the rolls across 64 counties, and those counties will now be tasked with confirming their eligibility or removing them from the rolls.

Allegheny County has the second-highest number of potentially ineligible registrants at 700, behind only Philadelphia County, which has more than 2,000 pending.

Of the 2,500 individuals removed from the list in the first rounds of verification by the State Department, 1,915 were certified eligible to vote, 215 registrations were canceled, and 286 had already been canceled.

It is not yet clear if any — or how many — of the more than 11,000 registrants cast an illegal vote in an election, or if any illegal ballots were cast in the May primary, which the department indicated beforehand it was trying to prevent.

"The counties will complete the process of confirming eligibility of the remaining registrants using the information provided by the Department of State," agency spokesperson Wanda Murren said. "It is premature to estimate the county findings, because many of the registrants may be eligible voters."

Murren said the agency has "no further information" about illegal votes beyond figures released last fall, when the State Department announced that noncitizens may have cast 544 ballots illegally out of more than 93 million ballots from 2000 through 2017. Those illegal ballots — one in every 172,000 votes — were revealed after the ineligible registrants reported themselves as having mistakenly registered, the department has said.

According to the State Department, the noncitizen immigrants registered to vote at PennDot centers while getting their driver's licenses — which legal residents, like lawfully present non-U.S. citizens, are allowed to obtain.

But during the process of getting their photos taken, their names were put through the motor-voter system — which was installed in the mid-1990s to simplify registration — and "inadvertently" registered to vote even though they weren't legally allowed, the agency said in a statement.

The state was alerted to the problem in 2017, and PennDot started to fix the system by altering the software so the screens at the licensing center don't give people the option to register if they have an indicator on their record signifying they're not citizens. PennDot finished its fixes in December 2017.

When the State Department was alerted to the problem, its goal "was to protect the integrity of elections," it said in a statement, and said the issue spanned several decades and multiple administrations.

"The Department takes seriously its duty to make sure that only eligible voters can cast ballots, and we believe that this extensive process was the best path to restoring full confidence in our elections," the department's statement read. "Upholding the integrity of Pennsylvania elections is a core mission of the Department of State and one we work toward every day."

The problem came to light in July 2017, when the department learned that some registered voters were canceling their registration because they were not citizens. Officials from Philadelphia met with the State Department that month because the city had been receiving "hundreds of letters from people canceling their voter registration because they were not eligible," said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt.

The department then hired an expert to analyze registration data and compare voter rolls with several other databases, which yielded a "responsible" list of individuals requiring further confirmation, the statement said. It wasn't enough to match raw data from the registration database to PennDot records because those who had an INS indicator when they registered may have become citizens since, and many had.

The agency used the list to call and mail letters to the potentially ineligible voters, in an effort to affirm their eligibility. The process — which the agency described as careful — started in May, before the primary election, when the department mailed letters to more than 7,000 people who registered to vote and were still active, reminding them of voter-eligibility requirements.

On June 12, the department sent letters to the more than 11,000 registrants — both active and inactive — asking them to confirm their eligibility or submit a request to cancel their registration. The department sent another round of letters to those who had not yet responded, and robocalls were made to those with a telephone number on their voter registration records, the department said.

The remaining 8,698 records — those who didn't respond or had an undeliverable address — have been passed to the 64 counties who had at least one unconfirmed individual. On Thursday, the department sent the counties information about those individuals, and advised them "to handle the registrants according to their normal processes" to verify addresses and confirm eligibility, the State Department said.

The department does not have the authority to remove voters from the rolls.

The department's goal, the statement read, was to ensure that no eligible voters were disenfranchised in the process.

"That is why we resisted efforts to bring about a careless and wholesale removal of all registrants initially identified as potentially ineligible," the statement read, adding that many would turn out to be eligible voters after confirmation.

There are more than 8.4 million registered voters in Pennsylvania.

Of the about 8,700 ineligible voters pending confirmation, about 2,500 are inactive — meaning they haven't voted in at least two general elections. The rest — about 6,100 in total — are considered active registrants.

The department is facing a lawsuit from the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation, which claimed the state was violating the National Voter Registration Act by blocking its access to records of their efforts to address the problem of ineligible voters on the rolls. When they filed the lawsuit in February, the group claimed there were more than 100,000 noncitizen immigrants registered to vote, which the State Department said wasn't an accurate figure.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, chairman of the House State Government Committee, has also sought records under the state's Right-to-Know Law, and in a Facebook post last week blasted the State Department for "dragging their feet at every turn to keep records regarding foreign nationals illegally registering to vote in Pennsylvania hidden from the public."