Dragnet Democracy: Reckless Colorado Purge Would Threaten Eligible Voters

August 31, 2012

Across the county, eyes are focused on a slew of new laws that could make it more difficult for Americans to cast ballots. We are right to highlight unnecessary laws requiring government-issued photo ID to vote and reductions in early voting, which risk blocking the participation of eligible citizens. But while the attention is focused on these new restrictive rules, another looming threat has garnered little attention: the potential elimination of thousands of legitimate voters from registration lists.

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler is in the midst of purging the state’s voter registration list only weeks before the election. He has repeatedly claimed to have identified thousands of registered voters who are not citizens, and would therefore be ineligible to vote. But new information shows that the vast majority of the alleged “ineligible voters” are, in fact, citizens. Gessler’s purge first, ask questions later policy could result in eligible citizens who have embraced their right and responsibility to participate in their democracy losing the right to vote. Gessler’s purge effort has been shown to be reckless and inaccurate, and he should immediately stop this last-minute attempt to throw voters off the rolls. Instead, Gessler should improve the voter registration process after the election, when there is time to undertake a careful process.

Gessler has made inaccurate claims for more than a year about supposed non-citizens registered in Colorado. In March 2011, he claimed that more than 11,000 “non-citizens” could be registered. This year, his estimate shrunk to approximately 4,000. But this roster of supposed non-citizens, as with a similar flawed list in Florida, was likely assembled using faulty matching criteria and outdated information. Yet Gessler was undeterred, and has plunged ahead with his purge program only weeks before the presidential election. As part of that effort, Gessler asked to use a federal government program, Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE), which can be used to check citizenship status. He signed an agreement to use SAVE on August 22.

But Gessler didn’t feel like waiting to check the list he compiled against the information in SAVE. Five days before the agreement was made, Gessler sent letters to about 4,000 voters, telling them they were potential non-citizens and demanding they respond with proof of citizenship. The missives included no deadlines and did not explain the consequences of not responding.

This week, after sending threatening letters, the state examined 1,400 of the voters using SAVE. The result? Eighty-eight percent of the 1,400 voters he suspected were ineligible non-citizens were persuasively proven to be eligible citizens. More investigation is needed to determine if the eligibility of the remaining roughly 168 voters. Even if the remaining 12 percent are all non-citizens, they would represent about .005 percent of the state’s registered voters. Unfortunately, thousands of law-abiding voters already have been threatened with loss of their right to vote.

With a demonstrated 88 percent error rate, to say Gessler’s hunt for non-citizen voters is misguided is an understatement. With the election only 67 days away, Gessler should abandon his fishing expedition, and conduct the appropriate list maintenance after the election, when eligible voters’ ability to participate in the November election won’t be in jeopardy. His actions may have already confused or intimidated some voters.

If Gessler truly wanted to protect the integrity of the voter lists, there’s a better way: bring the voter registration process into the 21st century. The people of Colorado would be better served if Gessler concentrated his energies on ensuring all those eligible participate in elections rather than conducting an ill-advised dragnet.