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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.