Immigration advocate, legal citizen gets Scott Gessler's non-citizen letter

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In the final weeks of the campaign, as we reported earlier today, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has continued his controversial anti-fraud campaign by tracking down individuals he believes are illegally registered to vote, because they are immigrants. Gessler sent them letters to 300 people asking them to verify their citizenship -- and yesterday, we reached one legal citizen who got the letter and is not happy about it, in part because he himself has done advocacy work around voter participation.

Alan Kaplan, 35, has been a citizen since 2001. But since a database of the Department of Homeland Security has him listed as an immigrant, he is one of 441 registered voters in Colorado that Gessler's office believes are illegally registered and would therefore be committing fraud if they voted on November 6. The letters are part of a larger effort from Gessler's office to eliminate fraud, which includes crosschecks with a federal database that critics fear is unreliable.

Kaplan, who lives in Fort Collins, also works in immigration advocacy and has been involved in efforts to encourage voter participation. He was the former communications director of Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and now does consulting for immigrant rights groups.

"When I got this letter, it got me thinking...not about me per se, but about people like my grandmother, who I have to drag to vote every year," he says. "If she got a letter like this, it would not only stop her from voting this year, it would stop her from voting forever."

The letter can be seen in full below. It reads in part:

We have information indicating that you may not be a U. S. citizen and that you are registered to vote. In Colorado, only U.S. citizens can register to vote and vote. We are relying upon immigration information you previously gave to the Division of Motor Vehicles in the Department of Revenue when you applied for or renewed your driver's license or state identification card. This information was later crosschecked with the United State Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Please complete and return the Colorado Secretary of State's office the enclosed "Admission or Denial of Non-U.S. Citizen" return form with thirty (30) days of receipt of this letter. You may return the form by mail, fax, or email, or you may return the form in person to the office. To the extent requested on the return form, include a copy of any document that either shows you are not the person identified in this letter, that you are a U.S. citizen, or that your immigration status has otherwise changed.

Signed by Gessler, the letter goes on to list forms of identification that would suffice, including a naturalization certificate or U.S. birth certificate. The letter was sent on October 3, although the Secretary of State's office announced results this week of their crosscheck with the Department of Homeland Security. The names of the flagged individuals were sent to county clerks across the state, but it's uncertain at this time how many could actually be challenged or removed from voter rolls in the final week-and-a-half before the election.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which has been critical of Gessler connected us to Kaplan. And the ACLU is now working to help voters who received the letter but are citizens. And Kaplan's case seems to illustrate the argument of those who oppose Gessler's use of the database: It's not always up-to-date.

Kaplan is originally from Belarus, a part of the former Soviet Union. He tells us that he became a citizen in 2001 through what is called "derived citizenship," which means he was underage when his parents became citizens and thus could become a citizen himself through their actions.

When he went to get his driver's license at the DMV in 2010, he used his green card -- the identification he had at the time -- and decided to sign up to vote while he was there, which he was able to do, since he is a citizen and had been for many years.

But because he used a green card, he shows up in the federal immigration system as a non-citizen. He received a letter over the summer in Gessler's first round of notifications and again this month, after the Department of Homeland Security crosscheck.

The ACLU and other voter advocacy groups say this kind of story could be quite common, since there a wide range of scenarios in which the SAVE database would not have the most recent information. Given his background in immigration advocacy, Kaplan says it's obvious to him that there are situations where an immigrant may become a citizen but it wouldn't be recorded in SAVE or may take time to be updated.

"It's fraught with errors," he says.

Continue for response from Gessler and the full letter that Kaplan received. Gessler acknowledges that the checks may not be right 100 percent of the time, telling us in an interview, "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."

The problem, Kaplan says, is that new citizens really might be discouraged from going to the polls when they receive this letter even if they have a constitutional right to vote on election day.

"It's definitely an intimidating letter -- a letter from the Secretary of State saying upfront it's illegal to vote...and you have to proactively prove to me [you are a citizen]," he says.

For his part, Gessler, who says there is proof that fraud is a problem in Colorado, sees nothing intimidating about the letter. He feels that his office is doing all it can to try and prevent illegal voters.

"It wasn't a threatening letter," he says.

But the timing of the letters being sent so close to the election is what particularly bothers Kaplan.

"That's the worst thing about it. Do you really need to be doing a purge...literally a month before the election?" he says. "I'm just really worried about people who have gotten the letter and people who have heard about it. People in the immigrant community talk to each other."

Gessler maintains that his office had no choice but to do send the letters now, because the federal government dragged its feet in giving his staff access to SAVE.

Another concern is that citizens often don't fully understand the elections process, adds Kaplan. "They put a lot of effort and money and time...and when they finally become citizens, they are still unsure about things for a while. When they get an official document from an elected official...they're gonna say, 'Maybe, he's right'...or a lot of people are not going to investigate it."

Additionally, he worries that Gessler, a Republican, has partisan motivations, a common allegation the Secretary of State faces.

"It's really strange to see a secretary of state spend so much time on Republican issues," he says.

And the stakes are especially high in a key battleground state like Colorado, he says.

Responding generally to the criticisms that his anti-fraud efforts are part of a Republican agenda, Gessler says, "These guys are politicizing the issue. We followed where the numbers led us."

He points to his massive registration drive, which he says helped register more Democrats than Republicans in the final weeks before the deadline.

"I'm being consistent in my...behavior and treating everyone in an objective, equal fashion," says Gessler.

Continue for the full letter. Here's the letter, courtesy of Gessler's office. Scott Gessler's Non-Citizen Letter

More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler: Top Democratic officials silent about potential spending investigation"

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

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