DENVER — U.S citizens are among those who received letters from Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler questioning their right to vote, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.
The ACLU's Colorado branch said the voters are among the nearly 4,000 people to whom Gessler sent letters this month asking that they voluntarily withdraw their registration or prove their citizenship.
"I was viscerally upset. You know like how when you feel in your stomach like you just got punched?" Veronica Figoli said about opening the letter. The Denver resident originally from Caracas, Venezuela, said she became a U.S. citizen in September 2011.
Denise Maes, ACLU public policy director in Colorado, said her office has heard from at least 25 U.S. citizens who received letters and that more are coming forward. She said the letters amount to voter intimidation.
Democrats have criticized Gessler, a Republican, for sending the letters and have questioned his political motivations in a state that's expected to be a presidential battleground.
The vast majority of registered voters who received letters were Democrats or independent voters. Of the nearly 4,000 letters, 1,566 went to Democrats, and 1,794 went to unaffiliated voters. Another 486 letters were sent to Republicans.
Gessler insists his goal is to maintain accurate voter rolls and denies any political motivation. His office maintains that they did not look at voter registration when sending the letters.
Gessler's office sent the letters to registered voters suspected of being ineligible to vote because they presented documents showing that they were not citizens, such as a green card, when applying for a driver's license. Some then later appeared in voter rolls, Gessler said.
Rich Coolidge, a Gessler spokesman, said the revelation that some U.S. citizens are among those who received letters was not unexpected.
"We absolutely knew that folks would have been naturalized since showing proof of non-citizenship. We also knew that other voters may not yet have been naturalized," he said in an email. "We have safeguards in place and have only removed voters who voluntarily withdrew their registration."
Gessler said he is using a federal database, which is also in use in Florida, that will allow him to verify the status of people who have since become citizens after getting their driver's license with a green card or other immigration document. He finalized a deal with the federal government to use the database about a week after he mailed the letters.
His office is having a hearing Wednesday to talk about a process for those who don't respond.
Figoli, 36, who works in marketing and communications, is among those who haven't responded.
"I don't think I should respond because I haven't done anything wrong," she said. "I feel that if I respond, I would be following his game."
Charmaine Rose, a state government attorney, also received a letter from Gessler and responded affirming that she is a U.S. citizen, but she said she worries about whether her status will continue to be questioned.
"You send in this form and it goes into the ether. Who knows what happens to it," said Rose, 36. Rose said she is originally from Toronto and became a U.S. citizen in March.
"I happily took the oath to serve this country and say the pledge of allegiance," she said. "And immediately the first thing I did was register to vote after the ceremony."
Heather Smith, a Canadian immigrant from Prince Edward Island who is now a U.S. citizen, said she also received a letter and supports Gessler's plan.
"I had no problem with it whatsoever. I'm glad that the secretary of state is taking the time to make sure that the rolls are accurate," said Smith, 50, who became naturalized in 2008 and now owns a business in Carbondale, Colo.
"Honestly, when I received the letter, I didn't think twice about it," she said.
Gessler has said there have been people who received his letter who have voluntarily withdrawn. It's not yet known how many, and his office is expected to release figures this week.
He said that about 2,000 people who once showed proof they weren't citizens while getting a driver's license later voted. But his critics say he's yet to produce evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Maes said her office is monitoring how Gessler's initiative unfolds, and is working with local voting advocacy groups to find U.S. citizens who received letters.
"Whatever number it is, it's that many more than any cases of voter fraud Gessler has been able to substantiate," Maes said. "So his science experiment has failed. I think ours is working pretty well."
Coolidge responded by saying "the ACLU should put as much energy into ensuring the integrity of our elections as they put into scoring political points."
"The fact is, each voter who confirms his or her citizenship or voluntarily withdraws only helps protect Colorado elections," he said.
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