One day, Margarita Del Pilar Fitzpatrick applied for an Illinois driver’s license. It upended her life. Today, other immigrants could face similar problems, due to a voter registration glitch.
In 2005, a clerk offered to register Fitzpatrick to vote. The Peruvian citizen mistakenly accepted. The confusion lead to legal battles—and eventual deportation.
A decade and a half later, Fitzpatrick struggles to find work. She’s nearly homeless and hasn’t seen two of her three American-citizen daughters in years.
“It has derailed our lives,” she says in a phone interview from Lima. “Immigrants should not be put in this situation.”
Currently, several other immigrants could also be facing trouble. It’s all because of a “programming error” in Illinois’ automatic voter registration system. It wrongly allowed 545 people to register—even though they hit “no” on an electronic keypad to say they were not U.S. citizens. At least 16 cast ballots.
“It’s disappointing because the situation could have been avoided,” says Lawrence Benito, head of an immigrant rights group. “They voluntarily told people they were noncitizens. It was not their fault.”
Voting by noncitizens is forbidden by state and federal laws. It’s also rare. A 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice found about 30 incidents of suspected noncitizen voting in a study of nearly 24 million votes in the 2016 general election.
It can take years for a noncitizen’s illegal vote to show up. Authorities might not find out until an immigrant applies to change status. For example, someone applying for citizenship must complete a form asking if he or she has ever voted. Saying “yes” could disqualify the applicant—and lead to deportation.
Fitzpatrick presented both her Peruvian passport and U.S. green card when applying for a driver’s license in 2005. A clerk said it was “up to you” about registering to vote, so she did. She later voted. She didn’t learn it was illegal until applying for citizenship years later. She was eventually deported in 2017.
It was the opposite for Elizabeth Keathley, a Philippine citizen. She applied for a driver’s license and got a registration card in the mail. She voted in 2006. When immigration authorities discovered she had voted, she was ordered removed. Instead, the courts decided she didn’t falsely represent herself. She was allowed to stay. Still, says Keathley, “Our lives were turned upside-down.”
Illinois officials are now vowing to protect immigrants like Fitzpatrick and Keathley. They also say the glitch—covering registrations from July 2018 through December 2019—has been fixed.
Republicans have called for the system to be suspended after other registration problems surfaced. They’ve also pointed to issues with mistaken noncitizen voter registrations elsewhere, including California. And as the 2020 election looms, focus on voter irregularities will only intensify.
(Elizabeth Keathley, a Philippine citizen in the United States on a marriage visa, prepares a traditional Filipino dish. Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune via AP)