Voter registration risks deportation
CHICAGO >> The day Margarita Del Pilar Fitzpatrick applied for an Illinois driver’s license upended her life. When a clerk offered to register her to vote in 2005, the Peruvian citizen mistakenly accepted, leading to long legal battles and eventually deportation.
A decade and a half later, she struggles to find work at 52, is nearly homeless and hasn’t seen two of her three American citizen daughters in years because of a secretary of state’s office mishap.
“It has derailed our lives,” she said in a phone interview from Lima. “Immigrants should not be put in this situation.”
A handful of other immigrants could face a similar fate, or criminal charges, after a mistake in Illinois’ automatic voter registration system allowed of hundreds of people who identified themselves as non-U.S. citizens to register. Sixteen cast ballots.
The fiasco in a state with a reputation for election shenanigans triggered a partisan battle, infuriated voter advocacy groups and left immigrant rights activists doing damage control.
“It’s disappointing because the situation could have been avoided,” said Lawrence Benito, head of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “They voluntarily told people they were noncitizens. It was not their fault.”
Voting by noncitizens is forbidden by state and federal laws and is statistically rare. But President Donald Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that millions voted illegally in 2016. His comments gave a political charge to the issue and put voting modernization efforts such as automatic registration in the spotlight.
“The political appearance is terrible,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said of Illinois. “The political reality is people are looking for any potential sense of error when it comes to noncitizen voting to indicate that things like automatic voter registration give rise to fraud.”
Illinois made headlines in 2017 when then-Gov. Bruce Rauner was among the first Republicans to sign automatic voter registration into law. The multi-faceted law focuses largely on the secretary of state’s office, which issues driver’s licenses.
A “programming error” wrongly sent data from more than 500 people to election officials, even though when asked if they were U.S. citizens, they hit “no” on an electronic keypad. Ultimately, 545 people were registered.
It’s unclear whether some people were confused and mistakenly hit “no.” About half of the voters appeared to be citizens. One was confirmed as a noncitizen with legal status to live in the U.S. Six others remain in question.
Whether that individual, or others yet to surface, could face criminal charges boils down the will of prosecutors.
Experts say there’s little chance of charges being filed around Chicago, where the Cook County state’s attorney is a Democrat.