Last Tuesday, Scott Gessler held a press conference to announce an $850,000 voter registration campaign -- the largest in the state's history. He said he hoped the effort would disprove some of his critics' accusations that Gessler, a Republican, has been trying to intimidate voters.
But days later, he sent out a press release giving new fuel to his naysayers: His office has identified 141 illegally registered voters, and in response, county clerks will be initiating "challenge procedures."
This latest announcement is the result of an effort Gessler began in August, when he sent out nearly 4,000 letters to registered voters who were potential non-citizens, asking them to prove their citizenship or voluntarily remove themselves from the voter rolls. He identified these voters through the Division of Motor Vehicles, prompting critics to suggest this information could be out-of-date and argue that Gessler was likely targeting legal voters who may have recently become citizens.
Gessler subsequently released initial results from that effort -- 482 respondents successfully affirmed their citizenship, sixteen voluntarily withdrew their registrations, and 1,011 had moved with no forwarding address.
The Secretary of State's office also ran the names of 1,416 voters -- who had an "alien identification number on file with the DMV" -- through the Department of Homeland Security's Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements database to confirm their citizenship.
The federal government found that one in ten, or 141, of these registered voters are not citizens, which means they can't legally vote, Gessler's office has announced.
Here's how Gessler frames the news in a quote sent out along with these numbers:
We confirmed our current voter registration has vulnerabilities. It is unfortunate the federal government dragged its feet for a year, putting us in a difficult position for the coming November election. For now, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the current challenge provisions, while we develop better procedures for the future.
Gessler was referring to the Department of Homeland Security not giving his office access to the federal database in a timely manner.
Of note, Gessler's office says that out of those 141 voters, 35 of them voted in past elections. From the perspective of Gessler's office, those 35 illegal voters function as proof that the Secretary of State's efforts in targeting non-citizen voters are justified and needed. Gessler's repeated mantra on this subject is, "it should be easy to vote and tough to cheat."
But some question whether those 35 are definitely illegal voters, since the federal database can have inaccuracies. And even so, it's still a tiny portion of voters, critics argue -- so why is the Secretary of State devoting so much time and resources to this effort?
"Obviously, the integrity of the rules is important...and obviously, only eligible voters ought to be voting" says Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. But, she adds, "His job is to enlarge the franchise."
Through August, the latest available information, there are 3,491,088 registered voters in Colorado. That means the 141 alleged non-citizens make up .004 percent of the total number.
Continue reading for more information on what will happen to the 141 voters. In response to criticisms, Andrew Cole, a spokesman for Gessler, points to the Secretary of State's massive registration campaign announced last week and adds: "The Secretary of State is not willing to tolerate any ineligible voters, so if we have information that they are out there, we are most certainly going to look into it."
Gessler's opponents often argue that his efforts end up targeting Democrats and unaffiliated voters and not Republicans. In fact, only 12 percent of those who received the original letter asking for confirmation of citizenship were Republicans. Gessler, however, argues that these kinds of attacks on his politics are partisan in nature.
Maes says she is concerned about the process going forward given that the November election is rapidly approaching.
"So far, we really don't know -- there might be somebody in that...141 that is a citizen," she says.
In addition to sending the names of these 141 individuals to the county clerks to initiate challenge procedures, Gessler's office will also begin a rule-making process to address the issue in the future, his press release notes. After a recent public hearing on how to handle non-citizen voters flagged by the government, Gessler decided not to propose an emergency rule. Instead, he'll begin a formal rule-making process to establish a long-term procedure that would go into effect after the election.
Maes says she wants to know what would happen if one of the 141 individuals had a different address and didn't get notice that they were being challenged. "What if that person really is an eligible voter and then can't register?... We don't know what he's going to do."
A letter from Gessler to the county clerks, on view below, outlines three different ways that non-citizen voters can be challenged and calls on the clerks to help "maintain the accuracy of Colorado's voting rolls."
Asked whether the announcement of the registration campaign addresses her ongoing concerns with Gessler's office, Maes says: "His timing is always curious."
Gessler insisted at the press conference last week that his voter registration effort has been in the works for a long time and has nothing to do with recent criticisms.
Maes says that she is pleased Gessler is making this effort and hopes it does increase voter registration.
"At the end of the day, that's what we want," she says.
Here's Gessler's full letter to the county clerks.
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