STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Think of this as a giant experiment. The State of Florida was deeply concerned that non-citizens might be voting illegally. So it went looking for evidence. It selected a huge number of suspect voters to investigate. But as the election nears, in a state that could decide the presidential vote, only a tiny fraction of those identified have proven ineligible to vote. Across the country, Republican-led efforts to remove non-citizens from the voter registration rolls have produced more angst than results.
NPR's Pam Fessler brings us up to date on a long-running battle.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Last year, Florida officials said they found 180,000 possible non-citizens on the voter registration rolls. In Colorado, the number was about 11,000. But it turns out a lot of these people were citizens. And now, after some names have been checked against a federal immigration database, the number of suspected non-citizens is closer to a few hundred. And even those numbers are under review.
Chris Cate is a spokesman for the Florida secretary of state's office.
CHRIS CATE: We're still in the very early stages of identifying non-citizens. We've already identified 209. And we know firsthand from the 2000 election how important even one vote can be in an election
FESSLER: 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, although Vicki Davis, president of the State Association of Supervisors of Elections, thinks it's too late.
VICKI DAVIS: At this point in time, I don't see any voters coming off of our voter registration database prior to the November 6 general election because the process typically takes 60 days.
FESSLER: That's to ensure that no citizens are accidentally removed. 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 them from 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.
SCOTT GESSLER: Some people think that it's acceptable to have lots of ineligible voters on the voting rolls. I think it's not acceptable to have any.
FESSLER: Scott Gessler is Colorado's secretary of state. He's come up with a list of 141 people on his state's rolls who have been identified as noncitizens with the help of the federal database. Gessler says 35 of them have illegally voted.
GESSLER: The evidence is irrefutable. There are some people who choose to close their eyes on it, but it's very clear we have a vulnerability in our system.
FESSLER: Gessler has sent the names to county election officials. But for many of them, the evidence is far from irrefutable. Debra Johnson is Denver's clerk and recorder. She says that data-entry errors accidentally put four people from her county on the list; another 38 have signed registration forms affirming their citizenship, and that's good enough for her.
DEBRA JOHNSON: We have no other evidence contradictory to that of what they've submitted to us. I mean we've got a list from the secretary of state, but we can't just cancel them out.
FESSLER: The Denver Post newspaper has also identified at least one citizen on Gessler's list, 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.
DENISE MAES: So 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.
FESSLER: She's especially concerned that these voters will be challenged by outside groups when they try to cast their ballots, so 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.
MAES: I think Mr. Gessler has thrown the F-word around rather loosely without any support.
FESSLER: In response, Gessler reads from one of several letters he has received from noncitizens asking to be removed from the rolls.
GESSLER: As an innocent immigrant, and without enough knowledge, I did vote twice.
FESSLER: 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. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.