In Battleground States, Voters Get Ominous Letters About Citizenship

Markus Mayer celebrated his new American citizenship with Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler during a naturalization ceremony in November 2011, and the German immigrant soon proudly registered to vote. So it came as a surprise when he received a letter in the mail just a few months later - from Gessler no less - asking for verification of his citizenship to remain eligible to vote.

In New Mexico, Diane Wood received a postcard in the mail from the secretary of state that threatened to remove her from the rolls if she didn’t update her information and vote in the next two elections. Never mind the fact that Wood is the voting rights director for Common Cause New Mexico and has voted in every election since 1971.

“It actually sent shivers up my spine to think that someone could take away my voting rights,” she said. “It had never crossed my mind that would happen to me.”

Colorado and New Mexico are just two of several states where Republican election chiefs have been attempting to purge ineligible voters from the rolls by sending out mailers like those received by Mayer and Wood. Many of the efforts have been in swing states that will determine whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be the next U.S. president.

The efforts to clean up voter rolls have reignited an intense debate about the integrity of the tactics. Democrats contend that Republicans are using these last-minute efforts as a scheme to keep voters from casting their vote in the election because immigrants tend to favor Democrats. Republicans allege that noncitizens and other ineligible people are voting illegally and affecting the outcome of elections. Both political parties have already promised to be watching at the polls for signs of illegal activities by their opponents.

The tactics come on the heels of a News21 investigation that found only a handful of cases of in-person voting fraud since 2000, when 146 million Americans were registered to vote. Several states have passed voter ID laws to eliminate fraud at the polls, and lawsuits have been unfolding in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania to stop the laws.

But another, sometimes-overlooked front in the battle for votes in the election has occurred as people like Mayer opened their mailboxes to find ominous letters questioning their citizenship and ability to vote.

Opponents have raised questions about their effectiveness. The effort undertaken by Gessler in Colorado uncovered only a tiny number of problematic voters. In Florida, the top elections official said at one point that up to 180,000 registered voters were not American citizens, but a subsequent purge uncovered only about 200 cases.

The cases

Wood had just gotten home from work in Albuquerque on Aug. 7, when she opened a postcard. It didn’t make sense to her. Not only is Wood a loyal voter, she also works to protect voters at Common Cause New Mexico, a non-profit organization that seeks to ensure fair elections.

Wood was one of 177,768 “non-residents and non-voters” identified by Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s office who received a postcard. She then checked her voting status to find it had been changed to “INACTIVE,” even though her most recent vote was 88 days before she got the notice. She does not believe there was a legitimate reason to have been sent the postcard.

“The only reason I can think is either they made a mistake in how they selected these people to get this card, or the post office made a mistake,” she said.

There have been reports that mail sent out by county clerks that gets returned by the post office indicates a person no longer resides at the address the mail was sent to. Wood believes this may have occurred to put her on the inactive voter list, or it was simply a computer error.

Wood has called her county clerk and asked her what will happen when she votes. The county clerk informed her that she will have to fill out another voter registration form with the same information that it already contains in order to “confirm” it.

“Ok, I’ll fill out another form, but nothing will stop me from voting a regular ballot at the poll,” Wood said.

Wood doesn’t plan to fill out and return the postcard. She’s voting early and documenting her experience, along with some others who also received notices. The video will be posted on YouTube to help others who got a postcard understand that they are not necessarily ineligible to vote.

Wood wants to make an example of herself and make the point, “I got a card. I got to vote. Don’t let a politician stop you from voting.”

Civic pride turns sour

Mayer came to the U.S. in 2000 and began the long and extensive process of becoming an American citizen. When that day finally came, Gessler spoke at his naturalization ceremony about the importance of voting.

Mayer, who was looking forward to finally being able to vote, registered the next month. So it came as a shock when he checked his mail on the way to dinner with his partner and opened up a letter from Gessler that asked him to confirm his citizenship.

“It kind of seemed like he was spoiling this,” Mayer said. “I just became a citizen. I just got the right to vote. And now he wants to take this away or at least make this difficult.”

After dinner, Mayer and his partner noticed that they were across the street from the Colorado Democratic party headquarters. They decided to stop in and see if anyone there knew what the letter meant.

The Democrats there were very interested in the letter because they hadn’t seen one before. They got Mayer in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer, who gave him information and recommendations on what to do.

Mayer was one of nearly 4,000 people in Colorado who received a letter questioning his citizenship. Of those recipients, a couple dozen removed themselves from the voting rolls, according to Gessler’s office.

“I think that the office of the Secretary of State could do better things for Colorado,” Mayer said. “I mean, this really is senseless thing.”

Gessler, on the other hand, sees the value in his efforts to remove ineligible voters from the rolls. He said that he is trying to make it easy to vote, but tough to cheat.

After working with the Department of Homeland Security for more than a year in an attempt to get access to the Systematic Alien Verification and Entitlements (SAVE) database, a system that holds information on citizens’ immigration statuses, Gessler gave the go-ahead to mail out the letters. He felt that he was running out of time and the Department of Homeland Security was stalling to give him access to the database.

Out of the nearly 4,000 people who received his letter, Gessler said that they’ve identified 141 as noncitizens, approximately 1,300 people who reported a change in address, and dozens who voluntarily removed their registrations. He has an updated evaluation on the remaining recipients that he has not released yet. The state has about 3.5 million voters.

“In doing that check, that confirmed that we do have a problem,” Gessler said.

Amid the cries of voter fraud throughout the country, Gessler actually holds a different viewpoint on the problem with illegal voters.

“I’m not even sure that a lot of this is fraud,” he said. “I think a lot of it is mistake, frankly. I think most of it is.”

Some noncitizens are registering to vote, and indicating that they are not U.S. citizens. However, these registration forms are still being processed and granting some of them the right to vote. Gessler said that they’re being truthful about their citizenship status, and that mistakes in governmental oversight and a faulty voter registration system are to blame.

“One of the things that we’ve done in this debate, by bringing light to this issue, bringing attention to it, is people are now a lot more careful and they understand what the laws are,” he said.

Gessler believes the endeavor to remove noncitizens from the rolls has been worth the effort, which did not require an exorbitant amount of money or time, according to his spokesman Richard Coolidge.

“I think it’s been very successful, and we’ve raised the profile of an issue,” Gessler said. “We’ve identified a substantial number of noncitizens who, in fact, are on the voting rolls.”

“I think there’s more confidence in the accuracy of Colorado’s voting rolls and elections than ever before,” Gessler added.

As for Mayer, he has not returned the letter to verify his citizenship. He plans to vote early, if possible. If there are any problems, he is going to call the ACLU “and sort it out.”

Push for the Hispanic vote

On an early Sunday morning, just weeks before the general election, interns from the Arizona Advocacy Network waited in the warm courtyard at St. Matthew Parish in Phoenix for the flood of people to leave the Spanish-language Mass. They were there to hand out booklets, also in Spanish, that summarized the measures on the ballot in Arizona.

Yijee Geong and Brendan Porter, political science majors at Arizona State University, were working on behalf of the Arizona Network Advocacy, which aims to engage voters, especially those from the Hispanic community and colleges. After voter registration closed in early October, it shifted its focus to voter education.

The parish was so impressed with what the organization was trying to accomplish by handing out the booklets that it invited the interns back for another week. Most of the church-goers were receptive and interested in what the ballots are about.

With its large Hispanic population, the Latino vote in Arizona is being heavily courted and closely watched in the 2012 election - especially in hard-fought Senate races like the contest between former Surgeon General Richard Carmona and GOP Rep. Jeff Flake.

For every voter purge in other states, there is an intense get-out-the-vote effort in places like Arizona.

Arizona elections officials are not attempting to purge voter rolls the way states like Colorado and New Mexico are, but the state is home to a passionate effort to get Hispanics to cast their ballots this year. Organizations from many vote-encouraging backgrounds are trying to make sure that Hispanics who are registered to vote actually get their votes in - an action that could potentially surge the outcome of the Democratic vote.

Sam Wercinski, Executive Director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said that the efforts in Hispanic neighborhoods to register voters were happening constantly in the weeks before registration closed, particularly by Mi Familia Vota. But the drives didn’t stop there.

“You want them to register to vote, then you want them to be educated so they can cast their vote in confidence,” Wercinski said.

Wercinski believes there are some wrongdoings in voter registration and on Election Day at the polls. Matt Roberts, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, disagrees.

“Our voter registration system has been in place for years, and we don’t have typically too many complaints on registration or voting,” Roberts said.

According to Census data, there are approximately 5.1 million citizens in Arizona over the age of 18 – qualified to vote. However, only 3.1 million are registered voters. There’s no way to determine exactly why that disparity is so large because they can’t track people who are not registered to vote, Roberts said.

“Registered voters and (those eligible to vote) are two different animals,” he added.

That gaping hole of potential voters in Arizona or voter fraud is not what the Secretary of State’s office is concentrated on.

“We try to focus on the things that we can control – those are running elections with election equipment that is accurate and trying to make sure that there is not fraud occurring,” Roberts said. “And we have a lot of safeguards in place that would prohibit voter fraud in a variety of ways, whether it be registration, or at the polls, or voting by mail.”

Yvonne Reed, spokeswoman at the Maricopa County Elections Department, echoed what Roberts said. Proof of citizenship is required to register, and identification is necessary to vote in Arizona. But the identification requirements are not especially stringent.

“We have a very positive attitude about the elections department in Maricopa County,” Reed said. “In fact… we are recognized as one of the best in the United States. It’s because we have so many rules and regulations in place.”

Some of these regulations include a logic and accuracy test of equipment to make sure it is tabulating properly and cameras in ballot tabulation rooms, which live stream to the Maricopa County Recorder’s website.

“So there’s a lot of background stuff that’s going on that most people don’t think about, and nor should they,” Roberts said. “They should focus on the candidates they want.”

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