Scott Gessler asks thousands of registered voters to prove they are citizens

Nearly 4,000 registered voters in Colorado received a letter this week from Secretary of State Scott Gessler asking that they prove their citizenship or otherwise remove themselves from voter rolls. Gessler, who says he is preventing fraud, identified these residents through the Division of Motor Vehicles -- but watchdog groups worry that the information could be flawed and the letters may intimidate legal voters from going to the polls.

"We identified a gaping hole in our voter roll integrity, and this effort will better protect our elections," Gessler said in a statement sent out yesterday. "We know there is a problem, and I am unwilling to accept fraud in our elections."

The idea is to catch voters who may have registered to vote but at one time presented some proof of non-citizenship, such as using a green card or VISA to get a license at the DMV, which they can legally do. The problem, according to local groups concerned with this announcement, is that a voter could have since become a citizen and these letters put the burden on them to actively prove that they can in fact legally vote. And that's all assuming that the DMV information is accurate.

"It could be really intimidating," says Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. "There are a lot of unknowns here and when we are talking about people's rights to vote, that's not okay."

Gessler's office says that voters who receive the letter, on view below, can either request to remove their registration using a form included with the letter or go online to GoVoteColorado.com. Naturalized citizens can sign an affirmation and return the form to the Secretary of State's office, a press release notes, saying that staff in the elections division will work with county clerks to update registration information.

A big concern for the watchdog groups is what happens if voters fail to respond at all.

The secretary's press release says that for voters who don't, Gessler is "working with the county clerks to implement procedures."

A spokesman for Gessler adds that the secretary is looking to identify a path going forward for voters who they believe are non-citizens but do not respond and remove themselves voluntarily. Some states, the spokesman says, have turned these people over to the district attorney, but Gessler is looking for a more "tempered approach." Gessler haspushed for more authority to access government databases to identify non-citizens, but at this time, he does not have the power to directly remove voters he believes aren't citizens.

Luis Toro, of Colorado Ethics Watch, points out that immigrants may have gotten their license many years ago and since become a citizen but might still show up on Gessler's list, because there wouldn't be any reason for them to go back to the DMV and prove their citizenship.

"We're talking about new Americans that may have every reason to suspect that voting might be a bigger hassle than they bargained for," Toro says. "And that would be sad. Then it has the effect of suppressing lawful votes."

He adds, "What's troubling about this is the lack of transparency about what are the next steps."

Page down to see read more about this effort and see the full letter sent to voters. In response to concerns from the advocacy groups, Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Gessler, says this is a proactive measure. "That's one way of looking at it...keeping your head in the sand and just looking the other way.... The secretary has taken this head on," he says.

"Our approach improves the integrity of our voter rolls," Gessler says in his statement. "Once we cut through the political noise, voters will see a measured approach that enforces the law and ensures that legal votes aren't cancelled out by illegal voters."

The secretary's press release notes that this mailing comes on the heels of a recent announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that states can verify voters' citizenship status using its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, database. Gessler's office is still waiting for a final agreement from the federal government on this.

Gessler's approach with these letters is modeled after North Carolina, which mailed letters to 637 suspected non-citizens on the voter rolls. That mailing resulted in 79 voters, twelve of whom had voted, removing themselves from the rolls and four who became naturalized after their voter registration date. In addition, 223 voters submitted proof of citizenship documentation, while 331 individuals did not respond to two separate mailings. Those unresponsive voters were eventually removed from the rolls.

The government groups, who have recently gone after Gessler for campaign finance rule changes, say this seems like a misdirected effort.

"The secretary of state is the chief election officer. His job is to make sure all eligible voters are able to vote," Nuñez says. "Instead, his focus is trying to weed out what he perceives to be ineligible voters."

Here's the full letter:

Non-Citizen Letter FINAL

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