Scott Gessler's office running checks on thousands of more potential non-citizens

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In August, Secretary of State Scott Gessler ran the names of 1,416 individuals through a federal database in hopes of weeding out illegal immigrant voters. Months later, a total of fourteens voters have been removed from voting rolls in Colorado. But the story doesn't end there. As it turns out, Gessler's office is doing checks on about 2,400 more individuals -- and his office expects results next week.

This latest round of checks will likely fuel more criticism that Gessler, a Republican, is spending too much time and effort trying to find illegal voters, when he should be focused on registering and encouraging voters and generally making sure election operations operate smoothly. Gessler, however, maintains that his office has done an unprecedentedly good job at registering voters even as he tries to clean up the voting rolls.

The controversial effort to prevent voter fraud first made headlines in August, when Gessler's office sent letters to nearly 4,000 registered voters asking them to prove that they are citizens. These were potentially illegal voters because they had at some point presented proof of non-citizenship, such as a green card or VISA, at the Division of Motor Vehicles. At the same time, Gessler's office also ran the names of 1,416 of those voters through a federal database with the Department of Homeland Security.

He was able to do so because those 1,416 had "alien identification numbers" on file with the DMV, while the remainder of the roughly 4,000 did not -- at least not at the time. Since then, however, Gessler's office has successfully located alien identification numbers for most of the remaining 4,000. For that reason, says Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge, the office has been able to run roughly 2,400 more names through the system. Gessler is expected to have results on this next week.

We first got wind of this second round of checks from Gessler directly, when we chatted with him outside of a food truck on the 16th Street Mall on Tuesday. Asked for his assessment about how his anti-fraud effort has gone, part of his response was, "It's sort of a lengthy process and we'll see how that pans out. We don't have all the data on that yet."

He added, "I am expecting, we've got another match that we've done -- so we're going to be releasing some more numbers as well."

According to Coolidge, the 2,400 names without DMV alien numbers likely reflect individuals who made multiple visits to the DMV, so they may not have shown a green card on a second or third visit. For that reason, their most recent record would not have the alien identification required for the SAVE system.

Since then, though, Gessler's office has dug deeper and tracked down those identification numbers for most of the remaining individuals. They expect results next week, less than a month before election day.

"We worked with the DMV...and are checking those numbers against the SAVE database," Coolidge says. "We've done that and are awaiting final verification."

Continue for more details on the latest checks and responses from Gessler critics. The first round of 1,416 turned up 141 that, according to the federal database, were non-citizens but were still registered to vote. At the time, Gessler said that 35 of those individuals had illegally voted in past elections, thus bolstering his argument about serious cases of fraud his initiative is preventing.

Gessler, however, has repeatedly complained that the federal government dragged its feet in giving his office access to the database. When he identified those 141 individuals, the best his office could do to prevent them from voting was send the names to county clerks with instructions on how to challenge them. It is this step that ultimately led to fourteen, or around 10 percent of the total, being removed. (The 141 identified were 10 percent of the original 1,416 that they ran through the system). Gessler's office maintains that there is no way to confirm that the others are actually legal, given that, according to the federal government, they are not.

Still, some county officials, like Debra Johnson, the clerk and recorder of Denver -- who removed four voters -- maintain that the others have checked out and should be allowed to vote.

Upon getting the latest results, Coolidge says the Secretary of State's office will likely launch a similar process of notifying county clerks of the voters who don't check out as legal citizens. Given that registration is closed and there are 25 days until the election, it's unclear how many more could be challenged and removed -- depending on how many actual alleged non-citizens the SAVE system finds in this next batch.

Gessler's critics say they're not opposed to stopping voter fraud, but that, but they feel this mission has become too much of a focus for the state's chief election officer, especially given that such a tiny percentage of voters have been removed.

"This is just another example of a misplaced priority of the Secretary of State's office," says Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch, a group that has frequently criticized Gessler. "He has devoted so many resources to this wild goose chase while ignoring basic functions of his office."

Toro points to a recent glitch in Gessler's mobile-optimized registration site, which led to nearly 800 voters who thought they registered not actually being put into the system. He also points to website malfunctions earlier this week, on the final day of registration.

"Obviously, he's not made it easier to vote," Toro says.

Gessler said those problems were handled quickly. His frequently repeated claim is that he wants to make it easy to vote and tough to cheat -- and he defends against criticisms by pointing to his expensive voter registration campaign, which he says helped the state register a record number of voters.

Gessler explained to us his motivation behind the anti-fraud effort earlier this week. In that interview, he also said of his critics, "These guys are as willfully ignorant as it gets. I have spent on this ad here $850,000. No one in the history of Colorado has ever done anything even close to that. They say I'm making it harder for people to register to vote. What I'm doing is encouraging people to register to vote.... What our office has done has been very successful."

More from our Politics archive: "Photos: Did Ann Romney forget her Mormon underwear at Denver debate?"

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

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