DENVER (AP) - Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler backed off from a decision to hold hearings challenging the citizenship of some Colorado voters, but he said 141 non-citizens are illegally registered to vote and he's passing their names along to county clerks.
Gessler's announcement ends an escalating standoff for now with Democrats, who blasted the elections chief for his effort to tackle what he maintains is a big problem on voter rolls.
Gessler and his detractors both found reason to declare victory.
"We confirmed our current voter registration has vulnerabilities," Gessler said. His office said there was not enough time to hold hearings challenging the citizenship of those 141 non-citizens before November.
Democratic attorney Martha Tierney said the number of non-citizens registered to vote that Gessler found shows that his search was a waste of time. Those 141 registered voters are .004 percent of the state's nearly 3.5 million voters.
"I still don't think that this is a wise use of resources," she said.
Andrew Cole, a Gessler spokesman, said the secretary's job is to maintain accurate voting rolls, regardless of the number of questionable voters.
"At the end of the day, the secretary of state is not willing to tolerate knowing about ineligible voters on our voter rolls without taking action," Cole said.
Gessler's search for non-citizen voters began with a pool of 3,903 people he sent letters to challenging their status. Hundreds who received the letters are U.S. citizens, and 482 responded by affirming their status. Others had moved or did not respond to the letters, and 16 voluntarily withdrew their registration.
Of the 3,903, Gessler's office was able to check the status of 1,416 though a federal database it recently received access to. The 141 are part of the 1,416.
Ultimately, those 141 voters could still verify their status because the result from the database is not the final authority.
Gessler had wanted to hold hearings for voters whose citizenship was still in doubt, but he said there wasn't enough time. He blamed the federal government for the length of time it took to grant Colorado access to the database known as SAVE - the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.
"It is unfortunate the federal government dragged its feet for a year, putting us in a difficult position for the coming November election," he said.
The database has information about immigrants in the country legally, with a green card for example, who are eligible to receive government benefits. Florida also received access this year, and other states, including Washington, New Mexico, and Iowa have asked for it. They're all swing states with Republican election chiefs, prompting Democrats to question their political motives.
In Colorado, the majority of the letters questioning citizenship went to Democrats, 1,566, and independents, 1,794. Gessler's office said they didn't look at party affiliation before sending the letters.
Democrats and left-leaning voting advocacy groups had worried that Gessler's plan to hold a hearing challenging the citizenship of registered voters could disenfranchise eligible voters. The secretary of state's office held a separate hearing last week to discuss that proposal.
"One of the key points that came out of the public hearing was that they were proposing to act as prosecutor and judge with these hearings, and they've wisely backed off," Tierney said.
Gessler said he would continue to work on developing a rule to deal with non-citizens on voting rolls and how to challenge their status for future elections. In the meantime, the county clerks who receive the names of the 141 people from Gessler may use the information to challenge voters at the polls or when they receive mail ballots.
- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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