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Scott Gessler: Database used to find illegal voters can have "lag time," feds say

Since August, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has been working with the federal government to try and identify voters illegally registered in Colorado in an effort to prevent voter fraud on election day. As of last Friday, 44 voters have been removed. His critics argue that the data he's using is not always accurate or up-to-date -- and officials with the federal agency that maintain these records confirm there can be "lag times" in the data.

At the center of the controversies around Gessler's anti-fraud initiatives are debates over whether fraud is a serious problem that demands the resources that the Secretary of State has devoted to it. His critics say the effort has become too much of a priority and can confuse or intimidate legal voters.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Sam Levin

Gessler has sent two rounds of letters to thousands of registered voters he suspects are not citizens. These are individuals who are registered to vote, but have a record on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles showing that they were at one point an immigrant. From there, Gessler's office was able to cross-check those names with records of a federal database that exist as part of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program, or SAVE, which is a part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

Gessler has long sought access to the records of SAVE, a program that essentially verifies immigration status, and his team was finally able to use that information starting in late August. Any registered voter who came up as a citizen through the SAVE checks was sent a letter asking them to verify their citizenship or voluntarily remove themselves from the voter rolls. Their names were also sent to county clerks with instructions on how they can potentially challenge these voters. A first round found 141 potentially illegal voters. And he announced two weeks before election day that his team has identified 300 more.

As of Friday, 44 individuals had been removed from the rolls or were withdrawing as a result of these citizen checks.

The problem, his critics charge, is that there are circumstances in which someone could have become a citizen but still show up as an immigrant in the records maintained by SAVE. That means legal voters are receiving letters asking them to prove their citizenship, they say. In August, after the first round, we spoke with one legal voter originally from South Africa who became a citizen in 2010, but still received the letter. In the second round, we reached another letter recipient who has been a citizen since 2001 -- and also happens to be an immigration advocate.

So why are citizens receiving the non-citizen letter?

Maria Elena Upson, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, tells us that there can be delays in the updating of records maintained by the SAVE program.

We asked her if it's possible that someone might still be listed as an immigrant in the SAVE records even if they have become a citizen. She writes in an e-mail to us, "It is possible if an immigrant was recently naturalized and their record wasn't updated shortly after the change in status. Once an individual naturalizes, the source records need to be updated and there may be some lag time between naturalization and a SAVE check."

Asked for more specifics on the lag times -- and how long they could be -- she writes;

Lag times are dependent on when an individual's updated information is entered into a database accessed by SAVE. Generally, these lag times are not very long but there can be instances where an individual derived citizenship status from his/her parents years ago and it could take longer to confirm. If an individual believes that information returned from the SAVE Program is not current, they can submit additional documentation to help confirm citizenship status.

This seems to be the case with the immigration advocate we spoke to two weeks ago and is a scenario we've heard about from other sources.

Continue for comments from one county clerk and response from the Secretary of State's office.

We recently spoke with Sheila Reiner, the clerk and recorder for Mesa County -- about another matter -- and asked her how the process went of reviewing the potential non-citizen names from Gessler's office. She was sent information for six registered voters and she says one of them was a citizen, because his parents naturalized and he was a minor at the time.

"So...he didn't check out with the database," she explains.

Reiner says she is concerned at how voters in the state view the elections process when the Secretary of State's office uses data that might not be solid for this initiative.

"I think this hurt voter confidence in our system," she says. "It raised questions in people's minds about how valid their vote is. In a highly charged, emotional election, it's just one more thing. Until we get some actual proof that these checks are working, I would prefer good data."

Reiner says she believes these non-citizen checks make voters concerned about fraud, and also could confuse legitimate voters.

"It's fired up the people who got the notices and I think it's also fired up people who believed that we have thousands and thousands of voting [who are not citizens]," she says. "The thing I keep going back to, and I have to, is I just don't have any proof yet. I don't have anything here in my county that indicates there's a problem."

Gessler's office maintains that he has solid evidence that there are immigrants in the state who have voted illegally -- and that more could be committing fraud this cycle. His office, he repeatedly has said, is committed to making it easy for people to vote but also ensuring that elections are fair, accurate and clean.

He and his staff have also repeatedly said they trust the information they are getting from the federal records.

In a recent interview with us, he said: "I'm pretty confident that most people...[flagged] are non-citizens. We recognize the data isn't perfect.... If they are a citizen and vote, that's fine and we encourage it."

Another argument in response to concerns about the data is that his office isn't directly kicking people off the rolls, but merely alerting them that records show they may be incorrectly registered. Gessler says the letters these citizens receive are in no way intimidating, and if they are citizens, all they have to do is send in proof verifying it.

In response to the comments from the Department of Homeland Security about lag times, Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge says in an e-mail to us: "We've communicated with each voter identified as a non-citizen by the federal government, that he or she can still show proof of citizenship to make up for that 'lag' time."

Asked if the federal government believes SAVE records are a good system for states to check citizenship status of those on the voter rolls, DHS' Upton writes: "SAVE provides a service for federal, state and local agencies to confirm the status of non-citizens as well as naturalized and derived citizens for the purpose of issuing benefits."

More from our Politics archive: "True the Vote promoting false information, possible intimidation, says Common Cause"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.