Voter regis­tra­tion risks de­por­ta­tion

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - NEWS - By Sophia Ta­reen

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.

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