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'It Undermines Integrity Of Elections': Glitch Allows Non-U.S. Citizens In Pa. To Vote

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt says a glitch in the state's "motor-voter" process has allowed non-U.S. citizens to register to vote, even though he thinks they did so accidentally.

The glitch has had no impact on elections, as the number of people mistakenly registered was small, but Schmidt thinks that statewide there could be many more and he wants the state to review registrations. He also wants it to cross check all active voter registration records against all current PennDOT records containing INS Indicators.

Secretary of State Pedro Cortes issued a statement saying PennDOT is changing its system to prevent the problem in the future and has already made improvements. He did not address reviewing and cross checking registrations statewide. A spokeswoman for Cortes said they are conducting their own review.

Voting advocates say Schmidt's concern is misplaced and they worry more about voter suppression, with a Trump administration panel looking for fraud even where there is no evidence of any.

Schmidt hastens to say he does not consider the non-citizen registrations as fraud.

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"Voter fraud implies intent," says Schmidt. "Voting irregularity is a vote that was not a legitimate vote but it's not cast with the intention to commit fraud."

Schmidt says 220 non-citizens have registered in the last 12 years and 90 of them actually voted.

He found three-quarters of them signed up when they got their driver's license. He believes that's because -- even though they told PennDOT they were non-citizens -- the automatic screens used during the process asked if they also wanted to register to vote. Non-citizens, living here legally, are allowed to drive but not vote, but Schmidt thinks they didn't realize that.

"Maybe they think it's a sign of their civic participation and then find out down the line they're not eligible to vote and they contact our office and ask that their registration be cancelled," he says.

He says there may be many more who didn't contact the office.

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David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the election watchdog, The Committee of Seventy, doubts that.

"I can't believe this would be the tip of the iceberg," he says. "I don't understand why this surfaces right now. This is a miniscule number, about .02 percent of all the city's registered voters. I don't get it."

Thornburgh points to a study by the non-partisan Keystone Votes that found 17,000 registrations in Philadelphia were processed late, making the potential disenfranchisement of legitimate voters a bigger problem than the accidental registering of non-citizens.

But Schmidt says he has another concern.

"It undermines the integrity of elections and it undermines their own chances of becoming citizens," Schmidt says. "That's very unfair, as well."

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Cortes agrees and says the state was taking action even before it heard from Schmidt. Here is his statement:

"In August 2016, the department changed the order and simplified the language of the Motor Voter screens. After selecting a language, applicants are immediately asked if they are U.S. citizens. If the answer is no, the process stops and no further Motor Voter questions are presented to the PennDOT customer.

"At the same time, we increased the number of languages offered with Motor Voter screens from only English and Spanish to an additional 12 options. The enhancement is in place at 89 of 97 PennDOT locations and the rollout will be complete in a few weeks. This will greatly reduce the chances of PennDOT's non-citizen customers inadvertently clicking through the screen.

"Additionally, the department is changing the Motor Voter system so non-citizens will not even see the Motor Voter screens. We are also placing additional notices to inform all applicants of laws regarding voter registration.

"The Department of State, the Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania's county election professionals are committed to protecting the rights of eligible citizens to vote. The freedom we cherish was built on this right and generations of Americans have fought to remove unfair barriers to this right."

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