Secretary of State Scott Gessler has asked the Department of Homeland Security to provide his office with the citizenship status of about 4,500 registered voters — his latest tactic in an ongoing effort to root out noncitizens and remove them from the state's voter rolls.
"It is imperative to the integrity of Colorado elections that we ensure only U.S. citizens are registered to vote and voting in our elections," Gessler wrote in the March 8 letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
Critics of the move agreed only U.S. citizens should vote but said Gessler is going to extremes — without oversight or transparency — and that bringing in an agency like Homeland Security may have a chilling effect.
"Even if you are eligible the environment that creates can be suppressing," said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause.
She also said any attempt to match databases is ripe for errors.
"And this is high stakes," Nunez added.
But Rich Coolidge, public information officer for the secretary of state, said Gessler is obligated to enforce Colorado election law.
"That's what he's doing," Coolidge said. "To turn a blind eye to it is not an appropriate path."
The roughly 4,500 names are people who provided a noncitizen document, such an alien registration or "green" card, when they applied for a Colorado driver's license and who are also registered to vote. About 2,000 of those people have cast ballots in recent Colorado elections, Coolidge said.
The list may include people who are in the country legally but are not citizens and who — either intentionally or not — registered to vote, either when getting a driver's license or through some other method. It may also include people who became citizens after applying for a driver's license, Coolidge said.
If Homeland Security provides the information on citizenship status, either the state or county clerks would send a letter to any person identified as a noncitizen. The letter would alert the recipient that the state has information the person is not a U.S. citizen, and ask them to either provide documentation of citizenship or submit paperwork to be removed from the state's voter registration list.
Any person who does not respond to the letter may be turned over to the local district attorney's office for possible prosecution. They may also be removed from the voter rolls, Coolidge said.
It is a felony for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen to register to vote or to cast a ballot.
The appeal to the Department of Homeland Security comes after numerous other attempts to identify noncitizen voters, and an admission from Gessler's office that the state has no way to know how many noncitizens are actually on the voter rolls.
After taking office last year, Gessler pushed unsuccessfully for legislation that would require his office to cross-reference the state voter registration database with other state and federal records to determine citizenship status. He later testified before Congress about the need for the same authority.
In July, Gessler asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and later the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, to provide the data. His office cited a federal law that requires the Department of Homeland Security to respond to any federal, state or local government agency seeking citizenship or immigration status "for any purpose as authorized by law."
ICE stated it was not the custodian of the records, while USCIS declined to provide the information. Gessler then went directly to Napolitano's office.
In the letter, he stated that his office should be entitled to the information because the secretary of state is required by law to maintain Colorado's voter registration database.
Department of Homeland Security Spokesman Matt Chandler declined to respond to an inquiry from The Denver Post about whether it has provided this information to election officials in the past or when it expects to respond to the request. But Gessler's office said it anticipates a response as early as next week.
Gessler's office also provided The Post with copies of documents they said were filed by noncitizens who were later removed from the voter rolls — in many cases, at the person's request. The office redacted the names, street address and dates of birth.
According to Coolidge, the documents were a sample of those received from the 422 people whom county clerks have removed from the voter rolls since 2008.
One person, from Jefferson County, stated in a May 2010 letter that he was applying to be a U.S. citizen and learned that he couldn't vote or be registered to vote.
"Please cancel my voters (sic) registration," he wrote. "I am sorry about what I did."
In another case a Colorado Springs resident registered to vote in 2003 and cast ballots in 2003, 2004 and 2006, according to copies of a poll book signed by the voter. In 2011 he filled out another voter registration form, but marked "no" when asked if was a citizen. He then wrote "not yet (will) permanent resident" next to the question.
He was subsequently removed from the voter list.
"There's no way for us to know if this is all of them," Coolidge said.
Sara Burnett: 303-954-1661 or firstname.lastname@example.org