Noncitizen Voters in Pennsylvania Not a ‘Glitch,’ Philly Official Says

With a close race expected in Tuesday's special congressional election, new attention focused on integrity of state's registration process

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 13 Mar 2018 at 8:59 AM

Al Schmidt bristles at the description, often attributed to him, of noncitizen voters in Pennsylvania as a “glitch.”

Schmidt, a Philadelphia city commissioner who has been sounding the alarm since 2012 about noncitizens on the voting rolls, said the word, misattributed to him, would be accurate if ineligible voters managed to elude safeguards in the motor-voter law.

“That would be a glitch,” he told LifeZette. “In this case, it was never designed that way.”

Congress passed the Motor Voter law, formally known as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, to encourage people to register to vote when they got their driver’s licenses. The problem, Schmidt said, is that Pennsylvania also allows legal permanent (noncitizen) residents to get driver’s licenses after a year in the United States.

And when those newly minted drivers finished that paperwork for a license, they were being sent to the same voter-registration terminals as citizens. To become registered voters, those foreign drivers must check a box swearing that they are U.S. citizens, but if they lie, state officials have no way to know.

Schmidt wrote a report in 2012 warning that noncitizens were finding their way onto the voting rolls — and, in some cases, casting ballots. Usually, elections officials would find this out only when a noncitizen came forward to ask that his or her name be removed from the rolls.

"We knew it was occurring, but we didn't yet know how," said Schmidt, whose three-member commission is in charge of administering elections in the state's largest jurisdiction.

Eventually, Schmidt said, he discovered that noncitizens were registering to vote through the "Trojan horse" of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), which he estimated accounts for more than three-quarters of the ineligible voters on the rolls.

The problem extends far beyond Philadelphia. Schmidt testified before a state legislative committee last year that the Pennsylvania Department of State had cross-checked registered voters against state driver's license records and found about 100,000 names of registered voters who had green cards when they obtained their driver's licenses.

The Department of State disputes that estimate, telling the Associate Press last month that it is "not a credible figure and there is no reason to believe it to be accurate," although authorities did not indicate how many noncitizens might be registered to vote.

The issue is critical because Tuesday, voters in western Pennsylvania will go to the polls for a special election to the U.S. House of Representatives. And polls suggest a tight contest between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb.

After Tuesday's contest, the state will hold primary and general elections for midterm congressional races, governor and other statewide offices.

"The election, the integrity of the election, is at risk," Schmidt said.

Even if the 100,000 estimate is accurate, it would represent less than 1 percent of the state's 8.4 million registered voters. Still, critics point out that special elections often feature low turnout, making the impact of invalid votes potentially greater.

"But the reality is we have documented cases of noncitizens registering and voting in Pennsylvania," said Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), which last month sued the secretary of state's office for information regarding noncitizen voters.

That includes multiple instances of foreigners who have re-registered after getting removed from voter lists.

"For some reason, they kept getting plugged back into the system," he said.

Schmidt told LifeZette that it is impossible to know how many of the noncitizens did so intentionally — with the aim of voting illegally — and how many did not read the forms closely enough or were confused about the law. He said in one sense, it does not matter.

"We wouldn't know motive," he said. "The damage is still the same."

In September, PennDot officials said they would stop offering a voter-registration prompt to noncitizens who obtain licenses. But Schmidt said the secretary of state has been slow to address the tens of thousands of noncitizens already on the rolls.

"That solves it moving forward," he said. "What it doesn't solve is the universe of people who have registered using this process the last 12 or 15 years," he said.

Schmidt cautioned that the 100,000 registered voters who were green card holders when they got their driver's licenses are not necessarily illegal voters. Some of those voters may have been legal permanent residents when they got their driver's licenses and then became citizens before registering to vote.

Related: Pennsylvania Officials Accused of Hiding Data on Noncitizen Voting

But he said the state should contact each of those voters and determine which are valid voters and which are not. He said he does not know why this already has not been done.

"It's a great frustration for us," he said.

If Tuesday's election between Saccone and Lamb comes down to a handful of votes, Churchwell said, ballots cast by noncitizens are not likely to be uncovered until it is too late.

"If it is a close result in a low-turnout election, the odds are we aren't going to be able to find out if any [voters were] ineligible until well after the election is over and the results are certified."

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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