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Officials from 12 states press feds for help in cleaning up voter rolls
DENVER — For the past year, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has been asking Homeland Security officials to check the names of thousands of possibly illegal voters in his state against a federal database.
A year later, he still doesn't know whether about 5,000 registered Colorado voters are actually U.S. citizens. The last time he heard from Homeland Security was in May, when an official told him that the department was still mulling over his request.
This week, Mr. Gessler decided he was tired of waiting. In separate letters to Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, Mr. Gessler and state Attorney General John Suthers called for the department to cooperate with state officials by entering into a memorandum of understanding on voter verification.
They were backed by the top elections officials of 11 other states, including two lieutenant governors and nine secretaries of state, whom Mr. Gessler said "share this approach" and would soon be requesting their own agreements with Homeland Security.
"Like my colleagues across the nation, I have sought to identify and remove anyone not legally allowed to vote, but without access to citizenship information from the Department of Homeland Security, I have no avenue to verify the citizenship status of voters," said Mr. Gessler in his July 9 letter. "This vulnerability erodes confidence in our elections."
Mr. Suthers asked the department to enter into the agreement no later than July 20, adding that the state was prepared to take legal action.
"If we do not hear from you in a timely manner, we will consider any and all other options legally available to us to ensure our compliance with federal and state mandates," Mr. Suthers said.
The effort represents the latest skirmish over potential voter fraud pitting Republican state officials and legislators against Democratic lawmakers, voting rights groups and even federal agencies. Rooting out illegal voting was a top priority for Republican lawmakers who captured state offices and legislative majorities in their party's 2010 election sweep.
At least a dozen states have approved tougher voter-identification laws and other reforms in the last two years. The Justice Department has challenged some of those laws in Southern states, including Florida and Texas, under its Voting Rights Act authority.
After critics insisted that Colorado has no significant voter-fraud problem, Mr. Gessler released in May redacted letters from 430 legal residents who found themselves on the voter rolls and asked to be removed, fearing they would jeopardize their chances for citizenship.
Mr. Gessler also flagged about 5,000 voters who produced non-citizen documents when registering to vote, such as alien-registration "green cards," at the same time that they obtained driver's licenses.
In a May 10 letter, however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said the agency was unable to assist with looking up the suspected illegal voters on its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program.
"We must further assess serious legal and operational issues that remain before we can make a determination on your request," Mr. Mayorkas said.
Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Elena Nunez said she was troubled by Mr. Gessler's push to rely on the federal database, saying that even the most advanced program may not have the latest citizenship information.
"Obviously, only U.S. citizens should be voting," Ms. Nunez said. But "Homeland Security said they had concerns about going down that path. I don't think it's the fail-safe that Secretary Gessler thinks it is."
Fueling the issue is Colorado's status as a battleground state in the November election. Because recent immigrants tend to vote Democratic, Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to disenfranchise voters, while Republicans say they want to protect the integrity of the process.
Of the 5,000 potentially illegal Colorado voters, about 2,000 have already cast ballots in elections. At the same time, some of them may have become citizens since they first registered to vote, leaving state officials reluctant to remove them from the rolls without more information.
Both Mr. Gessler and Mr. Suthers are Republicans, as are the elected officials from the other 11 states supporting the effort Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Washington and Utah.
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About the Author
Valerie Richardson covers politics and the West from Denver. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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