Scott Gessler calls effort to remove 300 more from voter rolls "good government"

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Though Colorado residents have already begun voting, Secretary of State Scott Gessler says it's not too late for officials across the state to work together to try and remove potential non-citizens from the voter rolls. Two days after early voting began, he announced that a new round of checks has revealed 300 individuals who he believes are illegally registered. His critics see this tack as a new level of intimidation given the timing, but in an interview, Gessler says it's just good government.

As we reported earlier this month, Gessler's office has been working with a federal immigration database to run checks on thousands of registered voters who he believes aren't citizens, and thus are illegally signed up to vote. This effort was the second round of checks his office has done, following a first batch over the summer that found 141 individuals who, at least according to federal records, aren't citizens but are registered to vote.

His work to weed out immigrant voters -- a part of Gessler's stated agenda to prevent fraud -- began with a letter his office sent out in August to nearly 4,000 registered voters asking them to prove they are citizens or voluntarily remove themselves.

He identified these voters because they had at some point presented proof of non-citizenship, such as a green card, at the Division of Motor Vehicles. He announced weeks later that 482 successfully affirmed their citizenship and sixteen voluntarily withdrew.

His office was also given access to a Department of Homeland Security database called the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, and was able to cross-check 1,416 of those individuals to see if they were listed as non-citizens.

At the time, Gessler's office was only able to run those 1,416 names, because the individuals had "alien identification numbers" on file with the DMV. Gessler's spokesman recently told us that his office could run about 2,400 more names, because staffers were eventually able to locate alien identification numbers for them, too. Fourteen of the 141 flagged in the first round have actually been removed -- and none have a record of voting.

This week, Gessler's office announced results of the second round, first reported by the Associated Press.

In the official news release, Gessler's office said the federal government has confirmed that 300 more Colorado voters aren't citizens. Added to the 141 flagged in the first round, Gessler says his office has identified a total of 441 non-citizens through SAVE. The Secretary of State has notified county clerks, sending the names to them for follow-up hearings. He has also sent a letter directly to those voters (see it below) explaining how they can verify their citizenship or remove themselves from voter rolls.

On top of that, Gessler forwarded the non-citizen names to Colorado's United States Attorney, John Walsh. Gessler's letter to Walsh on the subject is also below in its entirety, but here's an excerpt:

Due to the short notice, many of these individuals will appear on the pollbooks, and some may have already received a mail ballot. Obviously I am hopeful that only citizens cast ballots in this upcoming election, and we will continue to monitor this election, including the clerks' efforts. If, in fact, any of the non-citizens (identified by SAVE) cast ballots, we anticipate asking you to investigate possible criminal violations.

Gessler understands the timing is not good, but notes that his office wasn't given access to the SAVE database until very recently. That's made it difficult for his team to do a thorough job of cleaning up the voter rolls.

"It's not optimal, by any stretch," he tells us, adding, "It just took forever [to get approval to use SAVE].... We sort of have to work our way through these processes.... I had hoped that we could do it a lot earlier.... This is the very best we can do under these circumstances."

County clerks who receive the names can initiate challenge procedures, but there isn't legally enough time do that before election day. Election judges or any individuals can also challenge voters at the polls.

Continue for more from our interview with Gessler and a response from the ACLU. Given the timing and the fact that only fourteen were removed from the first round of checks, it's unclear at this point how many individuals might actually be taken off voter rolls in the final days before the election.

Still, by finding these names, sending them letters and alerting county clerks, Gessler says the effort should make a difference and help stop fraudulent voters. "I'm very hopeful we're not going to have [many cases of fraud]. We've sent them letters. They know the law or should know the law.... We've taken a lot of precautions.

"I operate under the assumption most people aren't interested in violating the law," he goes on.

The 300 flagged names strikes Gessler as proof that there are serious loopholes in the system.

"I'm not surprised. We expected that there would be some non-citizens in the voter rolls," he says. "I didn't go into it with an expectation that it would be 1 percent or a 100 percent. It is what it is."

Gessler, a Republican, has faced a wide range of backlash for these efforts, with some arguing that his priorities as chief election officer are just wrong, while his harshest critics say he is part of a coordinated effort to suppress non-Republican voters.

Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, says his latest effort could be one of his worst acts in terms of potential voter intimidation.

"His continued obsession with finding non-citizens on the voter rolls remains mind-boggling," says Maes, who says she has been in touch with voters who received the letters and are citizens. "I don't get it. I just don't get it."

It could have serious consequences between now and November 6, she continues. "We're all worried what it does to people at the polls...and I've always been concerned about his timing.... I think he's making it a bigger story than it is.... We don't want non-citizens voting, we don't want anyone ineligible voting, but let's deal with that issue in a calm, measured manner proportionate to how it really matters in the scheme of things."

As of October 19, there are a total of 3,644,344 registered voters in Colorado. That means that the 441 potential non-citizens constitute .012 percent of total voters in the state -- and critics of Gessler believe many of them could be citizens.

Voter advocacy groups say the federal immigration database can be inaccurate or out of date. Besides, they argue, there are many different ways in which a voter could have become a citizen, perhaps even decades ago, and still appear as an immigrant in SAVE.

But Gessler and his office, who recently shared with us their evidence that voter fraud has occurred in the state, say they generally trust the findings.

"I'm pretty confident that most people...[flagged] are non-citizens. We recognize the data isn't perfect," Gessler says. "If they are a citizen and vote, that's fine and we encourage it."

Part of his effort, he says, is to clear up confusion, since some immigrants may not realize they shouldn't be on the rolls. "Voting illegally is a much more serious thing than being registered to vote."

In response to concerns of intimidation, Gessler says, "I think that's speculation. We haven't seen it as a practical matter.... They are very non-threatening letters."

He adds, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Of the 441 people who were flagged, 163 were Democrats, 37 were Republicans and 232 were unaffiliated, according to data provided to us by Gessler's office. (Other details: Six are committed to the Green Party, two are part of the American Constitution Party and one is a registered Libertarian). Additionally, 82 of the 441 have a history of voting -- though, as we noted, none of the fourteen people who were actually removed from the rolls after the first round of letter actually cast a ballot.

"Look, this is a vulnerability we have. There's massive amounts of evidence...and it's a vulnerability we should take time to address," says Gessler, who touts his expensive registration ad campaign in response to criticisms that he has spent too much time on fraud-prevention.

He says this is a "good government" effort adding, "We're keeping our voter rolls accurate."

Continue for the full letter to potential non-citizens and for Gessler's letter to U.S. Attorney John Walsh. Here's the letter sent to 300 registered voters: Colorado Non-Citizens Letter

And here's Gessler's letter to Walsh. Scott Gessler's letter to U.S. Attorney John Walsh

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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