Pennsylvania Asks: Why Are Noncitizens on Our Voter Rolls?
A hearing will be held this week to find out how ineligible immigrants have ended up registering to vote in the state
The Pennsylvania state representative who chairs the committee in charge of elections oversight wants to know something seemingly basic when it comes to democracy — what is the state doing to make sure only eligible citizens vote?
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee, said the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s Office has failed to provide a responsive answer to questions he posed in a recent letter. He said he hopes a hearing scheduled for Wednesday in Harrisburg will shed some light on the issue.
"We're hoping to get answers to those questions and find out what they intend to do to make sure people's votes are not canceled out by people who aren't eligible to vote in Pennsylvania or any other state," he said.
In Pennsylvania — and other states — it is not just an academic question. A voter integrity firm called the Public Interest Legal Foundation, last year uncovered data indicating that 86 noncitizens had registered to vote from 2013 to 2015 in Philadelphia — and that 40 of them actually had illegally cast ballots in elections.
The only reason they ever came to light is that the noncitizens themselves alerted elections officials and asked to be removed from the rolls.
Al Schmidt, who serves on the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last month that hundreds of noncitizens had been registered to vote in the city over the past decade and that almost half had cast ballots. He blamed a glitch that allowed legal permanent residents to register to vote when they applied for or renewed driver's licenses.
The Inquirer reported that Allegheny County, dominated by Pittsburgh, had 98 cases of noncitizens canceling their voter registrations since 2006.
Schmidt is scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing.
Noel Johnson, a lawyer for the Public Interest Legal Foundation who also will testify at the House committee hearing, said the current voter registration system provides inadequate safeguards to prevent noncitizens from voting.
"Only eligible citizens who are entitled to cast ballots on Election Day should appear on voter registration rolls," he said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, that has not been the case."
And Pennsylvania is not alone. In May, the Public Interest Legal Foundation found 5,556 noncitizens who had been removed from the rolls in Virginia. About a third had voted in at least one election. Last month, the organization uncovered 616 noncitizens on the rolls in 11 New Jersey counties.
Metcalfe, who expressed alarm last year after the foundation published its report on Philadelphia, said he would like to see state elections officials cross-reference voter registration data against driver's license information to weed out noncitizens who might be on the election rolls.
Metcalfe said his efforts to get answers have been complicated by this month's unexpected resignation of Secretary of State Pedro Cortés. He said a lawyer from the office with whom he had been working also left state government.
But Metcalfe added that to the best of his knowledge, the secretary of state's office has not taken any proactive steps to scrub its rolls of ineligible voters.
"That is what the department should be doing," he said. "They have the authority under the law … It seems like they have no plan at all to remove these noncitizens from the rolls."
Metcalfe questioned Cortés' commitment to preventing voter fraud.
"It should anger Pennsylvanians that they have an official in this position and they aren't answering these questions," he said.