Are there thousands of ineligible immigrants registered to vote in Pa.? We don't know yet | Editorial

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It has been nine months since Gov. Wolf’s administration learned noncitizens with legal residency were improperly asked at PennDOT electronic kiosks if they wanted to register to vote.

This year’s midterm elections begin with a primary in less than six weeks. And the political environment, from the White House down, is rife with conspiracy theories about voter fraud.

So, it would be nice to have confidence in Pennsylvania’s voter rolls. But thanks to a 23-year-old problem that hasn’t yet been reconciled, we can’t.

In 1995, a process known as “motor voter” started asking people if they wanted to register to vote while applying for driver’s licenses.

We learned in September what Gov. Wolf’s staff and the Department of State first discovered in July — that for years the process asked ineligible immigrants in this country legally if they wanted to register to vote. It happened at PennDot electronic kiosks, during questions about obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. The upshot: ineligible immigrants registered to vote.

Wolf inherited this problem. And his administration moved quickly to fix the glitch going forward, so ineligible immigrants won’t be prompted to register to vote.

The problem is with the voter registrations that occurred between 1995 and 2017: We don’t know how many registered voters are actually ineligible or how quickly those registrations can be corrected.

Wolf’s administration and the Department of State say they are still working on that. But they have yet to make public any documents that could define the scope of the problem.

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt first told the Department of State about the problem last July. Schmidt said the agency’s top staffers later told him that an initial review found more than 100,000 registration records with “INS indicators,” a flag in the PennDot system denoting an applicant’s immigration status.

Schmidt says that doesn’t mean there are 100,000 ineligible voters registered in Pennsylvania,  though voter-conspiracy theorists have proclaimed the 100,000 number as gospel. Without more details about the progress the State Department is making in identifying potentially problematic registrations, Wolf is inadvertently playing into their hands.

A Wolf spokesman on Wednesday said the Department of State has hired an “expert who is prudently reviewing” voter registrations with a goal of fixing “inaccuracies without disenfranchising legitimate voters.” Doing that right takes time, he said.

Not everyone is so patient.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation sued the Department of State in February for refusing to provide access to records about the problem.

The Department of State in October mostly rejected a request for public records related to the issue, filed by the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.

The department rejected a similar records request from State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Butler County Republican. Metcalfe appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records, which gave the Department of State until last week to produce some of the information.

The Department of State instead appealed that ruling to  Commonwealth Court.

That was the wrong call. Voters have a right to know if our election process has integrity, even the conspiracy theorists.

Wolf, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, is touting a voting reform plan with ideas worthy of exploration, like same-day voting registration and absentee ballot modernization.

Those are forward-looking fixes. We urge the governor and the Department  of State to be more open about how they are fixing a problem rooted in the past.