By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - A Peruvian woman who voted illegally in two U.S. elections in 2006 can be deported as a result, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, despite her claim that she registered to vote only after a motor vehicle department clerk said she was free to do so.
The case involving Margarita Del Pilar Fitzpatrick, a legal permanent resident who arrived in the United States in 2002 and has three naturalized children, comes amid a debate over President Donald Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud, including millions of ballots from illegal immigrants.
The president and his allies have not provided any evidence to back those assertions, and elections officials and academics who study voting have said voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States.
Fitzpatrick, who is married to a U.S. citizen, applied for an Illinois driver's license over a decade ago, according to court papers. Like many states, Illinois allows individuals to register to vote when applying for a license under a "motor-voter" law.
She showed a desk clerk her Peruvian passport and U.S. green card when filling out the paperwork, her attorney said. The clerk asked her whether she wanted to register to vote and told her, "It's up to you," according to court papers.
Fitzpatrick's lawyer, Richard Hanus, told the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that his client therefore had "official approval" and should not be held responsible for an innocent mistake.
A three-judge panel wrote on Monday that Fitzpatrick had checked a box affirming she was a U.S. citizen and that the clerk's response was not an authorization.
Barring a successful appeal, the Department of Homeland Security can proceed to deport Fitzpatrick.
Hanus, who said he was considering further appeals, called the result a "miscarriage of justice" and noted that Fitzpatrick had disclosed the votes herself when seeking U.S. citizenship.
An immigration lawyer, Hanus said he has seen dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cases over the years in which an immigrant voted without realizing it was illegal.
"There's no fraud," he said. "It arises out of confusion."
On Saturday, the New York Times published a widely read account of a Texas woman sentenced to eight years in prison for voting illegally, despite her lawyer's claim that she did not intend to break the law.
Many Republicans have cited preventing voter fraud as justification for stricter voting laws, such as requiring identification, while Democrats have accused them of manufacturing an excuse to pass legislation that harms minority and low-income voters.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay)