Specious claims dog Pennsylvania’s noncitizen voter search

Marc Levy
Associated Press
Election Day in York City, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

HARRISBURG – Two Pennsylvania state lawmakers are making a disputed claim in a long-running, and possibly futile, effort by elections officials to determine how many non-U.S. citizens had registered to vote over the years.

On Tuesday, the lawmakers, Republican state Reps. Daryl Metcalfe and Garth Everett, issued a statement saying there had been confirmation that 11,198 foreign nationals had illegally registered to vote in Pennsylvania.

But that is not what state election officials said.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, first reported in July that it had identified 11,198 registered voters with some indicator they may not have been a citizen.

The department did not give a specific period of time for when those people registered, but said it searched every record in its database. All the names turned up in a search of the state driver license database; Pennsylvania allows residents to register to vote while getting their license, and election officials reported a flaw in that system in 2016.

That’s not where it ends.

As a follow-up, the agency reached out to everyone on the list, and 1,915 responded they are eligible to vote, the state said. That could reflect the fact that some had become citizens after they got a driver’s license, either before or after they registered to vote. About 300 canceled their registration.

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The department then forwarded the rest, about 8,700 registrations, to county election offices to track down because they had undeliverable addresses or didn’t respond. Those registrations came from 64 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, according to state data.

Of that number, about 2,550 were in the process of being removed from voter rolls by the counties, a process that is required after someone does not vote for a certain period of time and does not respond to efforts to contact them.

Douglas Hill, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said counties have tried since then to contact the rest, but no data are available on what they found.

The total number of questioned registrations represented only a little more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nearly 8.5 million people registered to vote in Pennsylvania.


In the fall of 2016, during a legislative hearing on the integrity of the state’s voting systems, then-Secretary of State Pedro Cortes, a Democrat, acknowledged someone who is not a citizen “may inadvertently register” while getting or updating a driver’s license.

The registration problem stemmed from electronic touch screens in state driver’s license centers that were programmed to give users the option to register to vote while getting new or updated licenses. The system showed noncitizens the voter registration option, even though they had already provided information showing that they were not citizens, officials said.

Election officials said the glitch had existed since the start of the state’s motor voter system, which was first authorized in 1995.

The state Department of Transportation said it had fixed the glitch as of late 2017, installing a new touch-screen system in which a noncitizen would not see the motor voter screens at all.



Department of State officials told lawmakers in 2017 that noncitizens may have cast 544 ballots illegally out of more than 93 million ballots in elections spanning 18 years in Pennsylvania.

The analysis covered 35 primary and general elections from 2000 through 2017.

The illegal ballots were apparently cast by noncitizens who later reported themselves as having mistakenly registered, the department said.

The department had said at the time the figure could drop as it continued to analyze information it received from counties. It said this week it has no updated figure.

THE 100,000 CLAIM

A Republican election official from Philadelphia told a state Senate committee hearing in December 2017 that the Department of State had found more than 100,000 matches when comparing driver’s license numbers with noncitizens’ designations to voter records with driver’s license numbers.

Pennsylvania election officials deny producing that figure, and disputed it , saying “it is not a credible figure and there is no reason to believe it to be accurate.”

Still, the figure was repeated in news stories and in a lawsuit in federal court by the conservative Public Interest Legal Foundation, accusing the state of violating the National Voter Registration Act by blocking its access to records of Pennsylvania’s efforts to identify and remove noncitizens from voter registration lists.

The Philadelphia election official, Al Schmidt, went on to tell the committee the actual number of noncitizens registered to vote may be lower, in testimony the lawsuit did not cite.

Similar processes have played out in several other states, including Texas , in recent days.

In Florida several years ago, state officials initially found 180,000 people suspected of being noncitizens registered to vote, but later produced a revised list of 198 names of possible noncitizens.