Scott Gessler: Database used to find illegal voters can have "lag time," feds say

Gessler, Scott thumb.jpg
Scott Gessler
Since August, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has been working with the federal government to try and identify voters illegally registered in Colorado in an effort to prevent voter fraud on election day. As of last Friday, 44 voters have been removed. His critics argue that the data he's using is not always accurate or up-to-date -- and officials with the federal agency that maintain these records confirm there can be "lag times" in the data.

At the center of the controversies around Gessler's anti-fraud initiatives are debates over whether fraud is a serious problem that demands the resources that the Secretary of State has devoted to it. His critics say the effort has become too much of a priority and can confuse or intimidate legal voters.

1 Scott Gessler with poster.JPG
Sam Levin
Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Gessler has sent two rounds of letters to thousands of registered voters he suspects are not citizens. These are individuals who are registered to vote, but have a record on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles showing that they were at one point an immigrant. From there, Gessler's office was able to cross-check those names with records of a federal database that exist as part of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program, or SAVE, which is a part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

Gessler has long sought access to the records of SAVE, a program that essentially verifies immigration status, and his team was finally able to use that information starting in late August. Any registered voter who came up as a citizen through the SAVE checks was sent a letter asking them to verify their citizenship or voluntarily remove themselves from the voter rolls. Their names were also sent to county clerks with instructions on how they can potentially challenge these voters. A first round found 141 potentially illegal voters. And he announced two weeks before election day that his team has identified 300 more.

As of Friday, 44 individuals had been removed from the rolls or were withdrawing as a result of these citizen checks.

The problem, his critics charge, is that there are circumstances in which someone could have become a citizen but still show up as an immigrant in the records maintained by SAVE. That means legal voters are receiving letters asking them to prove their citizenship, they say. In August, after the first round, we spoke with one legal voter originally from South Africa who became a citizen in 2010, but still received the letter. In the second round, we reached another letter recipient who has been a citizen since 2001 -- and also happens to be an immigration advocate.

So why are citizens receiving the non-citizen letter?

Maria Elena Upson, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, tells us that there can be delays in the updating of records maintained by the SAVE program.

We asked her if it's possible that someone might still be listed as an immigrant in the SAVE records even if they have become a citizen. She writes in an e-mail to us, "It is possible if an immigrant was recently naturalized and their record wasn't updated shortly after the change in status. Once an individual naturalizes, the source records need to be updated and there may be some lag time between naturalization and a SAVE check."

Asked for more specifics on the lag times -- and how long they could be -- she writes;

Lag times are dependent on when an individual's updated information is entered into a database accessed by SAVE. Generally, these lag times are not very long but there can be instances where an individual derived citizenship status from his/her parents years ago and it could take longer to confirm. If an individual believes that information returned from the SAVE Program is not current, they can submit additional documentation to help confirm citizenship status.
This seems to be the case with the immigration advocate we spoke to two weeks ago and is a scenario we've heard about from other sources.

Continue for comments from one county clerk and response from the Secretary of State's office.

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"SAVE provides a service for federal, state and local agencies to confirm the status of non-citizens as well as naturalized and derived citizens for the purpose of issuing benefits."


The database likely errs to the side of non-citizenship because of it's original purpose, to determining eligibility for benefits.  It was never designed to be accurate or timely enough to determine a citizens RIGHT to vote.  Requiring additional effort/proof from a targeted subset of the population is OK when applying for aid.  It is not OK when you are just trying to exercise your constitutional right to vote.

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