- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
Published December 14, 2016
They vowed to wage a war on voter fraud.
But those officials are having a hard time finding much of an enemy to fight.
State officials in key presidential battleground states, many of them Republican, have found only a tiny fraction of the illegal voters they initially suspected existed. Searches in Colorado and Florida have yielded numbers that amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all registered voters in either state.
Democrats say the searches waste time and, worse, could disenfranchise eligible voters who are swept up in the checks.
"I find it offensive that I'm being required to do more than any other citizen to prove that I can vote," said Samantha Meiring, 37, a Colorado voter and South African immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Meiring was among 3,903 registered voters who received letters last month from the Colorado Secretary of State's office questioning their right to vote.
Especially telling, critics of the searches say, is that the efforts are focused on crucial swing states from Colorado to Florida, where both political parties and the presidential campaigns are watching every vote. And in Colorado, most of those who received letters are either Democrats or unaffiliated with a party. It's a similar story in Florida, too.
Republicans argue that voting fraud is no small affair, even if the cases are few, when some elections are decided by hundreds of votes.
"We have real vulnerabilities in the system," said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican elected in 2010 who is making a name for himself at home by pursuing the issue. "I don't think one should be saying the sky is falling, but at the same time, we have to recognize we have a serious vulnerability."
The different viewpoints underscore a divide between the parties: Are the small numbers of voting fraud evidence that a problem exists? Or do they show that the voter registration system works?
Last year, Gessler estimated that 11,805 noncitizens were on the rolls.
But the number kept getting smaller.
After his office sent letters to 3,903 registered voters questioning their status, the number of noncitizens now stands at 141, based on checks using a federal immigration database. Of those 141, Gessler said 35 have voted in the past. The 141 are .004 percent of the state's nearly 3.5 million voters.
Even those numbers could be fewer.
The Denver clerk and recorder's office, which had records on eight of the 35 voters who cast ballots in the past, did its own verification and found that those eight people appear to be citizens.
Kevin Biln, an Adams County resident on the list, said he didn't know he was registered and maintains that he's never voted. Another voter on the list, Erica Zelfand, a Canadian immigrant, said she's a U.S. citizen no longer living in Colorado. Robert Giron said he was furious that the 20-year-old daughter he adopted from Mexico was listed as having illegally voted. He said she went to the Denver clerk's office with her U.S. passport and other documents to prove her eligibility to vote.
To Pam Anderson, the clerk and recorder in Jefferson County in suburban Denver, the investigation proves what's already been her experience: Cases of noncitizens on the rolls are extremely rare.
Anderson said the fighting between the political parties over the perception of voter fraud also has less tangible consequences.
"It impacts people's confidence in elections, which is extraordinarily important," she said.
Florida's search began after the state's Division of Elections said that as many as 180,000 registered voters weren't citizens. Like Colorado and other states, Florida relied on driver's license data showing that people on the rolls at one point showed proof of non-citizenship, such as a green card.
Florida eventually narrowed its list of suspected noncitizens to 2,600 and found that 207 of them weren't citizens, based on its use of the federal database called SAVE, or the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements. The system tracks who is a legal resident eligible to receive government benefits.
Of the 2,600 initially marked as possible noncitizens, about 38 percent were unaffiliated voters and 40 percent were Democrats, according to an analysis by The Miami Herald.
The state has more than 11.4 million registered voters, so the 207 amounts to .001 percent of the voter roll.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Republican, said in a statement that the initiative "is already proving to be a successful process to identify illegally registered voters," which he noted is crucial in a state where the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes.
In North Carolina, the nonpartisan state elections board last year sent letters to 637 suspected noncitizens after checking driver's license data. Of those, 223 responded showing proof they were citizens, and 79 acknowledged they weren't citizens and were removed from the rolls along with another 331 who didn't respond to repeated letters, said Veronica Degraffenreid, an elections liaison for the board.
She said the board did not find evidence of widespread fraud, noting there were only 12 instances in which a noncitizen had voted. North Carolina has 6.4 million voters.
"What we're finding is there is strong indication that the voter rolls in North Carolina are sound," Degraffenreid said.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, last week estimated that as many as 4,000 noncitizens are on the state's voter roll.
The department said it verified 1,000 registered voters who are noncitizens, based on an analysis of about 20 percent of complete citizenship data. She extrapolated the 4,000 number from the most recent U.S. Census' five-year American Community Survey, which showed Michigan has a noncitizen population of about 304,000.
That's as far as the investigation has gone. The figures have not been verified.
Ohio and Iowa, both with recently elected Republican secretaries of state, also are negotiating with the federal government to also use the SAVE database to verify citizenship, although it's unlikely they'll have enough time to do anything before the Nov. 6 election. While Ohio doesn't have a list of names it wants to check, Iowa is looking at verifying the status of 3,500 registered voters.
Last week, Iowa's Division of Criminal Investigation filed election misconduct charges against three noncitizens who voted in gubernatorial and city elections in 2010 and 2011. Among the three are Canadians who told investigators they thought they were only barred from voting in presidential elections.
The three were on a list of about 1,000 names of potential noncitizens who had voted since 2010, which Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz forwarded to the Division of Criminal Investigation.
Early voting in Iowa begins Thursday and Schultz recently told legislators that his office wants to use the information from the federal database "in a responsible manner."
"When somebody casts a ballot you can't un-ring that bell," he said. "If somebody is ineligible to vote and they cast a ballot that's been counted we can't take that back. This is an important election coming up."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.