DENVER — It came as something as a shock last weekend when the Obama administration abruptly reversed its position on ballot security by agreeing to let states check suspected illegal voters against a federal database.
Homeland Security had been stonewalling such requests from state officials for more than a year. But analysts note that the about-face came as just as public opinion was starting to turn against the administration, especially in the key swing states of Florida and Colorado.
“This was really beginning to stir up some bad public relations for the Democrats,” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said. “An argument between individual rights and ballot security is usually going to be won by the side that wants ballot security.”
In this case, that meant Republicans from a dozen states who worried that potentially thousands of non-citizen voters were poised to cast ballots in the November election. On the other side were Democrats and immigrant-rights groups who argued that there was no significant voter-fraud problem, and that efforts to purge the rolls could wind up disenfranchising legal voters.
Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler had uncovered 5,000 voters on his state’s rolls who produced a legal-resident document, such as a “green card,” when registering to vote, usually when getting their driver’s licenses. He had also received letters from 430 Colorado voters asking to be taken off the rolls because they were not yet citizens.
Mr. Gessler made repeated requests for access to the federal database in order to check the names of the suspected illegal voters against Homeland Security’s database of legal residents. While critics accused him of conducting a witch hunt or trying to solve a nonexistent problem, the dust-up was also shining a spotlight on the administration’s refusal to cooperate.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers got involved last week, sending his own letter to Homeland Security officials arguing that the department was legally obligated to assist Colorado. Chief elections officials from 11 other states, including nine secretaries of state and two lieutenant governors — all Republicans — lined up behind Mr. Gessler.
The Denver Post, which had criticized Mr. Gessler for being too aggressive in the past, came out in support of his attempt to gain access to the federal database in a July 15 editorial.
“Critics of the state officials’ request, such as ProgressNow executive director Joanne Kron Schwartz, characterize it as an attempt at voter suppression. We disagree,” said the editorial. “Seeking the federal government’s assistance is the surest, cleanest way to confirm citizenship status — and to end a rancorous debate about the extent of the problem.”
Meanwhile, in Florida, a federal judge ruled last week in Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s favor after the Justice Department attempted to deny the state access to the SAVE database. After Mr. Scott countersued, the Obama administration blinked, apparently opting to cut its losses by cooperating with state elections officials.
In a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, CIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas agreed to enter into a memorandum of understanding for the use of the SAVE program. Last weekend, SAVE program manager John Roessler spoke to an annual meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State in Puerto Rico, then met separately Monday with Mr. Gessler.
“I’m pleased that DHS has agreed to work with states to verify the citizenship of people on the voter rolls and help reduce our vulnerability,” said Mr. Gessler in a statement afterward.
The Miami Herald characterized the administration’s reversal as “a victory for Republicans,” while Human Events added that “the Obama administration could not look more foolish, and the Justice Department could not look more highly politicized.”
Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said she was concerned about the timing of the voter checks, with the election just four months away, but said she was optimistic that Homeland Security would safeguard the process.
“We’ll be watching closely to make sure the Colorado Secretary of State and Homeland Security don’t disenfranchise people who are eligible to vote,” she said.