DENVER — Nearly a third of people whose citizenship and right to vote were questioned by Colorado's secretary of state are actually U.S. citizens, election officials said Wednesday, prompting Democrats to question the motives behind the effort to clean up voting rolls as a tightly contested presidential election approaches.
Earlier this month, Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler sent letters to nearly 4,000 people questioning their citizenship as part of a plan to have them voluntarily withdraw or confirm their eligibility to vote.
State officials were able to run 1,400 of those names through a federal immigration database and found that more than 1,200 were U.S. citizens. Verification of the remaining names is still pending, but so far, the search hasn't turned up any non-citizens registered to vote.
Martha Tierney, an attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party, told election officials during a meeting Wednesday that they were wasting their time on a small group of voters instead of focusing on ensuring a fair and accurate fall election.
"This is a witch hunt and you should be embarrassed that you're going down this road," she said.
Gessler's office plans to release updated figures Thursday detailing how many of the 4,000 people responded directly to affirm their citizenship or withdraw their voter registration. He said no further action will be taken involving people who did not respond to the letters.
Democrats have criticized the effort to correct the voting rolls and said it could disenfranchise legal voters or make it difficult to exercise their right to vote. More than three-quarters of the letters went to Democrats and independent voters.
Gessler denies any political motivation and insists his goal is to maintain accurate voter rolls. His office said it did not look at party registration when sending the letters.
Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge said that ensuring only eligible voters cast ballots is an important component of running a successful election.
"As the state's chief election official, he is obligated to make sure that only eligible voters are casting ballots," Coolidge said before the hearing. "We identified a vulnerability in the system, we identified people who exploited, or accidentally exploited, that vulnerability, and we're going to shut down that loophole."
Still, critics have questioned Gessler's political motivations in a year where both major parties see Colorado as key to winning the presidential election. Control of the state Legislature and competitive congressional races are also at stake.
Across the country Republicans have aggressively pursued initiatives to verify voters' citizenship, particularly in swing states, much to the ire of Democrats who worry that key parts of their base – Latinos and seniors – are likely to be disenfranchised.
Election chiefs in Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio – all expected to be competitive in November – joined Colorado and other states asking the federal government for access to the database to verify citizenship. Colorado got access to the database last week.
Samantha Meiring, 37, a Colorado voter whose status was questioned, waved a letter as she told election officials Wednesday that she was speaking "as an immigrant and U.S. citizen who got a lovely little letter in the mail."
"I find it absolutely ridiculous that a U.S. citizen is being asked to jump through additional hoops to exercise a right to vote," said the registered Democrat, a South African immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. "I think you're chasing people that don't need to be chased."
A total of 1,566 letters went to Democrats and 1,794 went to unaffiliated voters. Another 486 letters were sent to Republicans.
Using information from the department of motor vehicles, Gessler identified people who once presented documents showing they were not citizens, such as a green card, when applying for a driver's license. It's unclear whether those people registered to vote while getting a driver's license or when approached by someone as part of registration drive.
Gessler's office provided The Associated Press with the party affiliation of people who received the letters but denied a request to see their names, citing an ongoing investigation.
Democrats and voting advocacy groups said Gessler has shown no proof of widespread fraud and overreached by sending the letters.
"They basically sent out the functional equivalent of an email blast," said Mark Grueskin, an attorney who represents Democrats on election issues.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado said at least 25 eligible voters who got the letters have contacted the organization, and the number is growing.
Democrats do not want Gessler to hold hearings for the fewer than 200 remaining people whose citizenship status hasn't been verified on the federal immigration database. They say further hearings are unnecessary because county clerks already have the power to handle challenges to voter registrations.
If Gessler's plan to hold hearings is approved by his office, people could start receiving a new round of letters as soon as next week notifying them that their citizenship is in doubt.
Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said the goal is to keep accurate voter rolls, and that officials are working in the best interest of immigrants who may be unaware that they're breaking the law by being registered to vote or by voting.
"I understand that you think this is a very small percentage," she told opponents of the plan, "but for these people, this is their life."