About five years ago, immigration attorneys started contacting Pennsylvania election officials to report that many of their clients had gone to get a driver's license and, a few weeks later, received a voter registration card in the mail.
Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, says it was especially disturbing for immigrants who were trying to become citizens.
" 'I received this in the mail, I don't know why,' " she says they would tell their lawyers. " 'I didn't think I was eligible to register to vote. Am I actually? Should I go vote?' "
The answer was definitely "No." That would be illegal (noncitizens are not eligible to vote in federal elections, but a handful of jurisdictions allow them to vote in some local races).
Since 1995, federal law has required states to offer people a chance to register to vote when they visit a local motor vehicle office.
But it turns out that Pennsylvania, like some other states, was asking that question of everyone who applied for a driver's license or state ID card — even those showing green cards or other documents identifying them as noncitizens.
That is often confusing for immigrants who come in to get a driver's license or ID, which noncitizens are eligible to do.
The issue remains a challenge for states, especially as President Trump and other Republicans have alleged — without providing evidence — that tens of thousands, even millions, of noncitizens have illegally registered and voted in U.S. elections.
Texas officials recently announced that 95,000 noncitizens appeared to be on that state's voter rolls. Those numbers have since been shown to be seriously flawed, but it hasn't stopped Trump from insisting such fraud is rampant.
While claims of massive illegal voting by noncitizens have routinely been disproved, some noncitizens have ended up on the rolls, usually by accident.
"What is the 'vote,' what should I do?"
Immigrants like Asife, who lived in Pennsylvania on a student visa in the early 2000s, were confused by the process of getting a driver's license and accidentally registered to vote. (NPR is not using his full name because what he did was technically illegal, and he's concerned about the repercussions in his community.)
"When I come here, I have no English language at all, like I barely, like you know, have some words," he says.
He didn't understand what the clerk was asking him, especially because Asife came from a country where elections are seldom held.
"The guy there didn't explain what is the 'vote,' what I should do? He just look at the screen and he told me, 'Okay, so answer this question.' And like I have no clue," says Asife.
He signed the form and forgot about it until he applied for citizenship seven years later and learned he was illegally registered to vote. Asife never actually voted and was able to become a U.S. citizen.
After hearing hundreds of similar stories, Pennsylvania officials realized they had a problem. They decided to change their system so that one of the first questions people are asked when applying for a driver's license is "Are you a citizen?" If the answer is no, applicants are never asked whether they want to register to vote. The forms are also available in 14 languages, instead of two.
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, says other states also accidentally register noncitizens. Sometimes it's just a misunderstanding between the motor vehicles department and election officials over whose job it is to verify citizenship.
Small numbers of votes
Becker says the number of noncitizens who end up on the rolls is relatively small and the number who actually vote is even smaller. Pennsylvania officials estimated that the noncitizens they identified cast 544 votes from 2000 through 2017, out of 93 million overall votes cast.
"Again, a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the eligible voter population, but clearly something we want to avoid," says Becker.
He notes that noncitizens can face serious legal action — several dozen have been prosecuted recently in North Carolina and Texas. It also undermines public trust and opens the way for allegations — even unfounded ones — of voter fraud.
"My concern is it risks jeopardizing confidence in the electoral process,'" California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said last fall when it emerged that some 1,500 individuals, including noncitizens, had mistakenly been registered as part of his state's new automatic voter registration law. The registrations were canceled, but it raised questions about what other mistakes had been made.
Padilla says the problem was trying to implement the new law — in which every eligible voter is registered unless they opt out — at the same time the California Department of Motor Vehicles was upgrading its entire system.
West Virginia is now facing a similar challenge. It's supposed to start automatic voter registration at the Division of Motor Vehicles on July 1, but both election and DMV officials are seeking a delay.
"You get one day of voter registrations not coming through, we're headline news across the nation," Donald Kersey, general counsel for the secretary of state's office, warned lawmakers earlier this month.
The state's DMV now relies on a mainframe computer that's more than 26 years old and needs to be updated.
Kersey says there are already problems. Some legitimate registrations get lost, while noncitizens can get on the rolls.
"In the current system, the noncitizen can just say, or can misunderstand, and just say yeah, 'I'm eligible. I'm a U.S. citizen, I'm a West Virginia resident'," says Kersey. "They can, I'm not going to say lie, but they can make a mistake and say yes. And they get a voter registration card in the mail. They probably think they're allowed to vote now. And then they go vote and they committed a crime."
Kersey says the numbers are tiny — the state is currently prosecuting only one noncitizen voter — but he says it's a concern when many local elections are decided by 10 votes or less. A bill to delay automatic voter registration for two years is making its way through the state legislature. It would also set up a new system to help ensure that those who do get registered are U.S. citizens.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Texas officials recently claimed that tens of thousands of noncitizens appear to have illegally registered to vote. Those numbers have since been found to be seriously flawed, but not before President Trump spread the false story on Twitter. Past claims that large numbers of noncitizens are voting have also been disproven. So is there any truth at all behind this widespread political myth? Well, there are a few cases when noncitizens end up on the voter rolls. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on how it happens.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The calls to immigration attorneys in Pennsylvania began a few years ago. Clients reported going to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a driver's license, but then...
SUNDROP CARTER: Four or six weeks later, they would get a voter registration card in the mail.
FESSLER: Which Sundrop Carter, the head of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, says raised some disturbing questions, especially for people trying to become U.S. citizens.
CARTER: I received this in the mail. I don't know why. I didn't think I was, you know, eligible to register to vote. Am I actually? You know, should I go vote?
FESSLER: The answer was definitely no. But clearly there was a problem. Federal law requires DMVs to offer customers a chance to register to vote. But it turns out that Pennsylvania, like some other states, was asking everyone, even those who were there to get a noncitizen's driver's license. Immigrants were confused, like Asife, who was in Pennsylvania on a student visa.
ASIFE: When I came here, I have no English language at all. I can't - like, I barely, like, you know, have some words.
FESSLER: And he didn't understand what the DMV clerk was asking him, especially since Asife comes from a country where elections are rarely held.
ASIFE: The guy there didn't explain what is the vote, what I should do. He just looked at the screen, and he told me, OK, so answer this question. And, like, I have no clue.
FESSLER: So Asife signed the form and forgot about it until he applied for citizenship seven years later and discovered he was illegally registered. We're not using his full name because he fears repercussions, but Asife never voted illegally and was able to become a U.S. citizen.
After hearing hundreds of similar stories, Pennsylvania has changed its system. Now one of the first questions people are asked at the DMV is, are you a citizen? If you say no, you're never even asked about voting. Forms are also available in 14 languages instead of two. David Becker, a voter registration expert, says Pennsylvania is not alone.
DAVID BECKER: We're talking about really small numbers, but there's no question that it does happen. And it's likely probably in the thousands nationwide - again, a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the eligible voter population, but clearly something we want to avoid.
FESSLER: Not only can noncitizens find themselves in legal trouble - several dozen have been prosecuted in North Carolina and Texas - it also opens states up to accusations of fraud.
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ALEX PADILLA: My concern is it risks jeopardizing confidence in the electoral process.
FESSLER: That's what California's Secretary of State Alex Padilla said last fall, when 1,500 individuals, including some noncitizens, were mistakenly registered. Padilla says one problem was trying to implement automatic voter registration, in which every eligible voter is registered unless they opt out, at the same time the DMV was upgrading its entire system. West Virginia now faces a similar challenge.
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DONALD KERSEY: We're going to be between a presidential primary and a presidential general.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's an election year. It's the primary.
KERSEY: You get one day of voter registrations not coming through, we're headline news across the nation.
FESSLER: That's Donald Kersey of the West Virginia secretary of state's office warning lawmakers about a pending disaster if they don't delay a new automatic voter registration law. The state's DMV uses a 26-year-old mainframe computer that needs to be replaced. Kersey says right now some legitimate registrations are getting lost, while noncitizens can still slip through.
KERSEY: In the current system, the noncitizen can just say - or can misunderstand and just say, yeah, I'm eligible. I'm a U.S. citizen. I'm a West Virginia resident. They can - I'm not going to say lie. But they can make a mistake and say, yes. And they get a voter registration card in the mail. They probably think they're allowed to vote now. And then they go vote, and then they committed a crime.
FESSLER: Whether intentional or not. Kersey says the numbers are tiny, but it's a concern in a state where many local elections are decided by 10 votes or less. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.