Colorado county clerks baffled by Gessler ‘non-citizen voter registration’ claims

“I really have no idea what he is talking about,” Republican Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner told the Colorado Independent.

Reiner was referring to allegations made again recently by Secretary of State Scott Gessler that non-citizens are registered to vote in the state. Reiner said she has asked Gessler in the past to share what he knows so that she and the other clerks in the state can address any potential problem. She said that, in roughly the year that has passed since he first brought up the issue, details from Gessler’s office have not materialized.

“I asked for the lists when I first heard about this. I haven’t gotten any information. I just don’t know,” she said.

Gessler shared more detailed information on the topic last month at an Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club fundraiser. He said that 150 or so non-citizen residents of the state who had been erroneously registered to vote contacted him before he had even become secretary of state and asked to be removed from the registration rolls. He said that in 2011, his first year in office, 400-some erroneously registered non-citizens had asked to be removed from the rolls, the climbing number, he said, clearly indicates a wider and more serious problem.

This week, Gessler told KLZ talk radio listeners not only that non-citizens were being registered to vote in the state but that they were also casting votes.

“We’re continuing to do the analysis on the issue… of non-citizens being on the voting rolls here in Colorado and some of them voting,” he said. “We did a study last year and we’re going to do some more analysis and come up with more evidence to show people that there, in fact, are problems here in Colorado.”

At the end of last month, the Colorado Independent asked the secretary of state’s office to elaborate on his concerns and findings for the record but received no response.

The Independent then filed an open records request (pdf) with the office asking for any communication conducted between non-citizens registered to vote and the secretary’s office and/or conducted between the secretary’s office and county clerks on the subject of non-citizens asking to be removed from the voter rolls.

Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge responded to say his office “is not the custodian” of such records. “You’ll need to submit your request directly to the county clerk and recorders, who register and cancel voter records,” he wrote in an email.

Voter rights watchdog group Colorado Common Cause subsequently submitted a similar records request and told the Independent that Coolidge had asked for an extension on the three-day statutory delivery period.

County clerks and staff contacted by the Independent so far in some of the state’s most populous counties, including Adams, Boulder, Denver and Pueblo, have said that they, like Reiner in Mesa County, have no knowledge of any non-citizens ever being registered to vote nor have they knowingly received any requests to be removed from the voter rolls from non-citizen residents of the state.

The Colorado Independent today submitted another open records request asking for any related “work product” created or commissioned by the secretary’s office, including any database searches seeking information concerning non-citizens being registered to vote in Colorado.

A standard form

“There’s nothing on the form like that,” Adams County Clerk Karen Long told the Colorado Independent, referring to the state’s standard “Withdrawal of Colorado Voter Registration (pdf)” form, the one available online that anyone seeking to remove their name from the rolls must submit to their county clerk. (Click on the image to the right for an enlarged version.)

“[The form] doesn’t ask anywhere for the reason you want to be removed,” Long said. “It asks for your name and ID or social security number and then you have to affirm it–you have to sign it and affirm it’s what you want and it’s accurate. That’s it. The only time we would know why someone wants to be removed is if they tell us, voluntarily. Maybe they’re moving out of state,” Long said.

Reiner said people sometimes come into her office upset about politics in general and want to be removed from the rolls.

Joan Fitz-Gerald, the highly respected former Jefferson County clerk, state senate president and now president of nonprofit watchdog AmericaVotes, said occasionally people asked her to remove them from the rolls because they were looking to avoid jury duty.

Boulder Clerk Spokesman Brad Turner didn’t hesitate to let on he was baffled.

“I don’t know how [Gessler] would know whether non-citizens were asking to be removed from the lists. That information just isn’t here, as far as I can tell.”

‘No need for a bill’

Gessler pushed hard last year at the state legislature for the “Proof of Citizenship” bill sponsored by Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. The bill came in response to a study Gessler conducted based on database search and comparisons that he said suggested thousands of non-citizens could be voting in Colorado.

The bill, HB 1252, would have granted the secretary power to “periodically check” voter registration records against a collection of databases “maintained by federal and state agencies.” If the secretary suspected any registered voter “may not be a citizen,” he could suspend that voter’s registration, giving him or her 90 days to (re)submit documents proving their right to vote.

The bill failed to pass but, as the Colorado Independent reported in January, Gessler waved off Holbert and Harvey this year, saying there was “no need for a bill,” according to a Holbert staffer, because he felt he could address the issue outside the halls of the capitol with means available to him through his office.

Trimming voter rolls based on database searches like the ones described in the “Proof of Citizenship” bill– searches centered on comparing ID numbers listed in the state’s voter registration database, known as SCORE, and ID numbers listed in databases that include state or federal immigration information– is a prospect that alarms voting-rights watchdogs and at least some of the state’s county clerks, who openly doubted the accuracy of such an approach.

Clerks said that conducting those kind of database searches would give Gessler numbers of likely “suspects” but no confirmation that the people he thinks he is dealing with are actually the ones tied to the information on his lists. They added that he wouldn’t know whether people’s citizenship status had changed or to what extent human error had fouled up his searches.

That kind of skepticism has been the reaction among government watchdogs since Gessler first began talking about non-citizen voters.

Estelle Rogers, director of advocacy for Project Vote, looked closely at the six-page report Gessler produced last March that started the conversation in the state. In the report, Gessler said his office, working mainly from the Department of Revenue driver’s license database, was “nearly certain” that 106 immigrants were improperly registered to vote in Colorado. The report concluded that perhaps as many as 11,805 people were improperly registered to vote in the state and that 4,000 of them had voted in the 2010 elections.

Rogers told the Colorado Independent that such claims should come with more detailed supporting material that could be independently reviewed.

“The secretary says he is ‘certain’ that 106 people on Colorado’s voter roll of 3.7 million are ‘improperly registered.’ That’s about 0.0028648648649 percent of the voter roll,” she wrote in an email. “Obviously such an error rate is to be expected whenever human beings are copying data from one list to another. Before the secretary of state jumps to the conclusion that these are 106 cases of voter fraud, he should have a lot more evidence than mere suspicion. Non-citizen voting is a fashionable political theme these days, but it has no basis in reality. And the right to vote is too important to confuse with sloganeering.”

Fitz-Gerald echoed those sentiments.

“Clerks know that you never do anything without documentation. There are very specific processes outlined by law when you’re dealing with voter registration. There has to be a paper trail.”

She said that accuracy and accountability is everything when it comes to removing voters from the registration lists.

“You have to be sure that somebody isn’t removing someone else’s name. It can be very basic. Neighbors could be fighting.”

Fitz-Gerald pointed as a cautionary tale to the error-ridden “scrub lists” controversial Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris used in 2000 to purge voter rolls there of alleged felons. Roughly 173,000 names made it onto Harris’s list but many of the names were tied to people with only misdemeanor convictions, others merely shared the same name with a felon.

Florida tried to rectify the problem as the errors came to light but evidence from Election Day polling places suggest thousands of legally registered voters may have been turned away as a result of the purge.

‘This matters’

“If I’m a clerk in Colorado, I wanna know who are these people [Gessler] is talking about. I wanna know what he’s doing. I’d be camping out in his office,” said Fitz-Gerald. “This matters. This is important.”

A high-profile conservative politics election and campaign finance attorney for years before he took office, Gessler has drawn heat for pushing election rules changes that he says are necessary to prevent voter fraud and that critics contend would make it more difficult for many legally registered Coloradans to cast votes. In addition to seeking the power to independently purge the voter rolls of suspected noncitizens, Gessler sued to prevent clerks from mailing ballots to inactive voters.

His efforts reflect moves Republicans have made nationwide since the GOP “wave election” of 2010 to stiffen voting requirements, efforts watchdogs and Democrats characterize as attempted vote suppression of left-leaning constituencies, including young people and members of minority groups.

Given that context, Fitz-Gerald says you would expect Gessler to be taking greater pains to justify his proposals.

“He’s not just a partisan attorney anymore,” she said. “He’s in a much different role. He’s an officeholder responsible to all voters– Republican, unaffiliated and Democratic. If something is wrong with the voter registration system, it is his responsibility not just to call it out at party dinners but to fix the problem and to work with the clerks to do that. It has to be a collaborative effort to keep the system solid.

“If he’s right there’s a problem, then it’s a state problem and it’s tied to the public trust. So take it to the clerks. Let’s get it worked out. You either want to solve the problem or you don’t. There are laws about how you go about these things and for good reason, too.”