Noncitizens aren't allowed to vote in federal and state elections, but efforts to remove them from the nation's voter registration rolls have produced more angst than results.
Opponents say the scope of the problem has been overblown; those behind the efforts say they've just begun to look at the problem.
Last year, Florida officials said they found 180,000 possible noncitizens on the voter registration rolls. Officials in Colorado said the number in their state was about 11,000. But it turns out many of these people were citizens. Now, after some names were checked against a federal immigration database, the number of suspected noncitizens is closer to a few hundred. Even those numbers are under review.
"We're still in the very early stages of identifying noncitizens," said Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida secretary of state's office. "We've already identified 209, and we know firsthand from the 2000 election, how important even one vote can be in an election."
Cate says the list will go to county election supervisors whose job it is to remove noncitizens from the rolls. He says that could still happen by November. But Vicki Davis, president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, says she thinks it's too late.
"At this point in time, I don't see any voters coming off of our voter registration database prior to the Nov. 6 general election because the process typically takes 60 days," says Davis, who is supervisor of elections in Martin County, Fla.
That's to ensure that no citizens are accidentally removed.
Both Sides Hold Firm
This tension between cleaning up the voter rolls and making sure legitimate voters aren't hurt in the process is playing out across the country, often in court. Many conservative groups say registration lists are filled with noncitizens, undermining the integrity of elections. Liberal advocacy groups say that the move to purge the rolls is just a cover to suppress the votes of Latinos and others, who tend to vote Democratic. Neither side shows signs of giving in.
"Some people think that it's acceptable to have lots of ineligible votes on the voting rolls. I think it's not acceptable to have any," Colorado's Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler says.
With the help of the federal database, Gessler has come up with a list of 141 people who have been identified as noncitizens on his state's rolls. He says 35 of them have illegally voted.
"The evidence is irrefutable," Gessler says. "There are some people who choose to close their eyes on it, but it's very clear we have a vulnerability in our system."
List 'Not 100 Percent Accurate'
Gessler has sent the names to county election officials. But for many of them, the evidence is far from irrefutable. Debra Johnson, Denver's clerk and recorder, says that data-entry errors accidentally put four people from her county on the list. She says another 38 have signed registration forms affirming their citizenship.
"We have no other evidence contradictory to that," she says. "I mean, we've got a list from the secretary of state, but we can't just cancel them out."
The Denver Post has also identified at least one person on Gessler's list who says she's a citizen, and several noncitizens who say they were unaware that they were registered. Denise Maes of the ACLU of Colorado says her group has also confirmed three others incorrectly identified as noncitizens.
"We know that that list is not 100 percent accurate and we want to make sure that people that are eligible to vote are not intimidated and that they go to vote," Maes says.
She's especially concerned that these voters will be challenged by outside groups when they try to cast their ballots; the ACLU has offered to accompany them to the polls. Maes says allegations of widespread voter fraud, used to justify purge efforts here and elsewhere, are not supported by the facts.
"I think Mr. Gessler has thrown the F-word around rather loosely without any support," Maes says.
In response, Gessler reads from one of several letters he has received from noncitizens asking to be removed from the rolls.
One reads: "As an innocent immigrant ... and without enough knowledge I did vote" in two elections.
He says others also acknowledged voting because they were confused. Indeed, he thinks most noncitizens probably register by mistake, often when they go to get a driver's license. Now voter advocacy groups say they'll press ahead in court to ensure that those mistakes don't lead to new ones, involving legitimate voters.