A native of Puerto Rico, Pedro A. Cortes, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, abruptly resigned from on Wednesday, just three weeks after his office came under fire to allowing thousands of ineligible immigrants across the state to vote. The announcement of his departure came in a “personnel update” from Gov. Tom Wolf (D) that did not specify the reasons for the resignation. Cortes also served as secretary of state from 2003 to 2010 under Gov. Ed Rendell (D).
A spokesman for the governor, J.J. Abbott, told the media that he had no explanation for the resignation. Cortes served as the state’s top election official.
Last week State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R), who chairs the House State Government Committee, joined 15 of his colleagues in a letter “to express our dire concerns” about the disclosure last month that legal resident noncitizens in Pennsylvania had been allowed to register as voters when apply for or renewing drivers’ licenses at PennDot service centers.
Metcalfe has sought to hold a hearings on the issue in advance of the November 7 general election. He was informed by telephone on Wednesday of Cortes’ resignation. He is still waiting for an answer to the questions posed to Cortes. Metcalfe said this week his committee is seeking to know why foreign nationals were put on the voter rolls before the general election in 2016. He had raised the question in October 2016 when Cortes was testifying before his committee. He told Philly.com “Cortes knew this was an issue.” Metcalfe added, “It is interesting that his resignation occurred within a week of our letter to him about this serious issue.”
The issue came to the forefront again in September when Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt with the discovery by his staff that 317 noncitizens had canceled their voter registrations in the city from 2006. Their data goes back to 2006 when Pennsylvania began using the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, which provides statistics about voters. Election officials, found that in Allegheny County there were 96 cases of noncitizens canceling their voter registrations since 2006. Then the Department of State found records of 1,160 canceled voter registrations listing ineligibility as a reason and said the issue was under review.
Schmidt’s discovered documentation from 220 non-citizens, either through direct contact or via an attorney, who canceled their voter registrations. Forty-four of those voted in one election and 46 voted in more than one election. All of the 317 registrations have been canceled. In a similar circumstance in Illinois, a legal immigrant from Peru — who was working as a registered nurse — was deported in August when she told federal immigration authorities that she had voted. The admission of voting was a deportable offense.
Schmidt said his staff traced the majority of the 220 documented cases of non-citizen voters to PennDot centers, where they produced immigration documents to show they were legal residents of the US and eligible for a driver’s license. In compliance with the federal “Motor Voter” law of 1995, applicants for driver’s licences are asked to mark a box on an electronic kiosk if they also wanted to register to vote. Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of State changed the order of the questions at the PennDot kiosks in August 2016 to fix the problem.
Gov. Wolf’s office claimed this as a “glitch” that “has existed for decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations,” adding that his administration “is actually taking action to fix it.”
Cortes became the first confirmed Latino cabinet member in Pennsylvania history in 2003 when former Gov. Ed Rendell appointed him secretary of state. While he was the commonwealth’s Chief Election Official, by statute Cortes was also Chairperson of the Navigation Commission for the Delaware River and its Navigable Tributaries, and a member of the Board of Finance and Revenue, the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement Board, and the State Athletic Commission. He was also the keeper of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth with the duty of authenticating government documents through the seal’s use.
Cortes has received numerous awards, including: the Torch of Global Englightment from the World Affairs Council; Hispanic Business Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States; Multicultural Affairs Congress’ Delaware Valley’s Most Influential Latino; Legal Intelligencer’s Diverse Attorney of the Year; and The Pennsylvania State University Alumni Fellow.
Cortés began his state government career in 1993 as a caseworker with the Department of Public Welfare. He then worked as an attorney with the State Civil Service Commission, and was the Executive Director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs for two Pennsylvania governors. Prior to his most recent appointment as Secretary of State, Cortés was a partner with the law firm of Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith.
The interim secretary of state of Pennsylvania is Robert Torres, who is the Executive Deputy Secretary of the department. He had previously served as Deputy Secretary of Health and as Pennsylvania’s Health Information Technology Coordinator. Born in New York, Torres’ parents came from Puerto Rico. He is also the board president of the Harrisburg Latino Hispanic American Community Center.
Last year, Cortes acknowledged non-citizens “may inadvertently register” to vote while getting or updating a driver’s license. While the state department said at the time it correcting the “glitch,” it would not say how many non-citizens were registered to vote.
Back in May 2016, Gov. Wolf and Cortes announced the “success” of the state’s online voter registration (OVR) system as a factor in the “efficient handling” of the primary election. “Online Voter Registration has been a tremendous success in both its appeal to voters and in increasing efficiencies for our 67 county elections bureaus,” Governor Wolf said. According to the statement:
“The OVR site logged more than 358,000 users from the time it launched in August 2015 through the March 28 primary registration deadline. Of those 358,000, just over 200,000 were eligible citizens applying for new voter registrations, while about 157,000 made updates to their existing voter registration, such as a change of name, address or party affiliation.
“On the final day to register before the primary, the site drew 56,000 users.”