Scott Gessler's effort to weed out illegal voters finds four in Denver County

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In the months leading up to the November election, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has devoted some of his resources to targeting immigrant voters who may be incorrectly registered -- an effort aimed at cleaning up voter rolls.

And the results in the state's largest city are likely to fuel criticism that the initiative is a misdirected effort: In Denver, the anti-fraud crusade found a total of four incorrectly registered voters who have since been removed.

Gessler, a Republican, has faced a great deal of backlash for this effort, with local advocacy groups arguing that it amounts to voter intimidation or suppression -- first with letters he sent to nearly 4,000 registered voters, asking that they prove they are legal citizens. Gessler's office later announced that it had identified 141 illegally registered voters as a part of its efforts and that in response, county clerks across the state would be working to challenge those individuals and remove them from voter rolls.

Of that 141, the Secretary of State sent the Denver County Clerk's office the names of 42 alleged non-citizens. The 141 names came from a federal database called the Systematic Alien Verification and Entitlements, or SAVE, which the Secretary of State's office was recently able to access. These are registered voters who are not citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security -- though critics argue this data can be out of date or inaccurate.

Last week, we chatted with Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson about a completely unrelated lawsuit she is bringing against Gessler, she informed us that of the 42 illegally registered voters sent her way, her office has removed four of them.

Those four were the result of a clerical error. Johnson explained that these individuals actually checked a box saying they are not citizens, which is supposed to lead to a cancellation in their status. But due to some kind of system error, their registrations were not initially canceled and they were put into the system. They have since been removed even though they've never voted, a Johnson representative said.

Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Gessler, says his office has heard that other county clerks have discovered similar kinds of system errors, though, at this time, the Secretary of State doesn't yet have an official count on how many of the 141 voters have been officially removed from voter rolls.

The other 38 voters in Denver checked out and are eligible to vote in November, Johnson said.

"Like anyone, we want to make sure we have the cleanest voter registration rolls that we can," said Johnson, a Democrat, who has clashed with Gessler on a number of issues. She declines to offer any more broad response or criticism of Gessler's overall efforts against fraud, but points out that four is a small number relative to the hundreds of thousands of total voters in her county.

She's right. The Secretary of State's office lists 460,343 registered voters, including active and inactive voters. In Denver, that means information from this federal database has resulted in .00087 percent of voters actually being removed from the voter rolls.

Still, Johnson says, "I don't want to have anyone that's not eligible to vote on my voter registration rolls."

Continue reading for response from Gessler's office. Debates about voter access and possible intimidation and suppression are happening across the country with the First Lady recently saying, "We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth." While Colorado does not have the heated battles around voter-ID laws facing other states, questions of voter access and possible intimidation are of great importance in this state, given that it's one of the tightest races in the country and is expected to play a major role in determining the outcome of the presidential race.

Johnson said the timing of this whole process has been difficult given that the November 6 election is rapidly approaching.

"We are busy preparing for the election," she said.

Gessler's office also laments the timing, noting -- as it has in the past -- that it has long sought access to the federal database, and ultimately had very little time to use the information to enact a thorough process of removing illegal voters.

"The federal government has said they are non-citizens," Coolidge says, referring to the 141 voters, including the 42 identified in Denver. "But we didn't get access to the SAFE system [until recently].... We are out of time."

He says that given the time frame, all his office could really do was hand over the names to county clerks, who could then initiate challenge procedures in a number of ways. His office sent a letter out to county clerks earlier this month, explaining procedures of what the clerks could do to remove these voters.

"We would want more time to be able to work through these issues," Coolidge says.

In response to general criticisms, Gessler has repeatedly said his office wants to make it easy for people to vote, but tough for them to cheat.

Coolidge adds that in this case, it's difficult to know whether the 38 voters in Denver who ultimately checked out with Johnson's office are actually legal voters.

"They fulfilled their duty with us," he says, but adds, "They haven't fulfilled their duty with the federal government."

More from our Politics archive: "Marijuana: Amendment 64 opponents, backers fueled by controversial out-of-state money"

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

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