OLYMPIA, Wash. — Decisions about how aggressively to purge ineligible noncitizens from voting rolls have varied widely from one state or county to the next, with partisan election administrators often reflecting the views of their political parties.
Some Republican elections officials hurriedly worked this year to begin clearing noncitizens from their state voting rolls. But many of their Democratic counterparts have not, even though they now have access to a federal immigration database.
Those calls on purging the lists are among the decisions that will shape next week's elections by determining which, when and how people can vote.
Because much of the elections process nationwide is run by state and county officials, there is no universal standard, and the process is often tainted by political motivations. And the result, according to election law expert Rick Hasen, is that Republicans are more likely to risk disenfranchising legitimate voters while Democrats are more likely to risk having ineligible voters on the rolls.
"It undermines public confidence in the election process when people learn that those counting the votes have a horse in the race," said Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.
The GOP has focused during this election campaign on ID laws, limits to early voting and aggressive efforts to remove ineligible voters from registration systems. Democrats decried those efforts, fearing such rules would disproportionately affect their blocs of low-income and minority voters.
And Republicans had some missteps that heightened those concerns. Last year, Florida began efforts to remove some ineligible people from the rolls by relying on information from the state's motor vehicle agency, but many of those identified for purging were actually citizens.
Republican officials in several states also pressed for access to federal immigration data, and GOP leaders in Colorado and Florida have been hurrying to identify ineligible voters ahead of the November election. Democratic counterparts have taken a different tack, citing time constraints and arguing that the voter registration system is protected because voters must attest to being citizens before registering to vote.
"Any voter who falsifies this information is liable for prosecution for the false statement and for voter fraud, which are state and federal crimes," said Av Harris, a spokesman for the Connecticut secretary of state's office. The office has no plans to use the federal database, and other states with Democratic election administrators also haven't tried to do any such work before Election Day, including immigrant-rich California, Massachusetts and Missouri.
States are finding that noncitizens are on the rolls, although in small numbers.
Under pressure from GOP officials, the Obama administration opened up access this summer to the so-called SAVE immigration database – Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements. States that are now using the system must provide a unique identifier, such as an identification number collected when the person applied for a driver's license, to check that person's citizenship status.
The ID numbers are assigned to foreigners living in the country legally, so the SAVE list is unlikely to catch illegal immigrants who might have managed to register.
So far, questionable registrations identified through SAVE searches have amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of registered voters, although Republican election leaders say they are still pursuing more. Hundreds of people have been removed from Colorado rolls in recent years because they were not citizens, with some recently self-identifying as ineligible in response to letters from state officials.
With the help of the federal data, Colorado was able to identify an additional 141 people who weren't listed as citizens, although some of those named are disputing the conclusion. Scott Gessler, the Republican secretary of state in Colorado who helped lead a push of several election leaders to access the federal data, said the state is now working to identify more noncitizens and questioned why some states wouldn't make the same effort.
"More information is always better. Why would you not want better information to help your voter rolls?" Gessler said. "How can you say it's good enough when you won't even look at information that will answer that question? To me it's just crazy to ignore more information."
Election leaders already compare voter registration lists against a variety of databases, such as death and inmate records, in order to make sure registrants are eligible to vote. Before this year, states did not have access to citizenship information, so voters are asked to confirm their citizenship in the registration process. The database helps identify legal noncitizens, such as permanent residents or temporary workers.
Gessler and other observers believe some of the noncitizen registrants simply did not realize that they weren't allowed to vote. Others may have checked a box saying that they were not citizens but approved by government officials anyway, and Gessler noted that some noncitizens have sent in letters wondering why they were approved to vote.
Similarly, Florida's limited check identified about 200 potential noncitizens, and Florida officials, led by the GOP secretary of state, are now working to expand their query.
Hasen, the elections expert, said Democrats seemed reluctant to acknowledge the small but real problem of noncitizen voting. But he also questioned the tactic of Republicans who were rushing into the purges shortly before a major election.
Hasen believes an ultimate solution to deal with politically charged election administration would be to have the process managed at the federal level by nonpartisan officials. But he says such a solution would probably never happen because of opposition from both political parties and little impetus for change even when elections go awry.
"If Florida 2000 couldn't do it to this country, I'm not sure what it would take," Hasen said, referring to the politically charged vote count in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Some of the states with Democratic election leaders indicated they were open to using the immigration database. Missouri recently began researching the database as a potential option for a new secretary of state to consider early next year.
Myrna Perez, a senior counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, said it's important that election leaders are cleansing and updating their voter rolls regularly. But while the center doesn't have an official position on whether the federal database should be used for voter registration clean, Perez worried about rushed efforts to purge voters right before an election, saying that sort of process leads to errors.
"When it's done in the right way, everybody benefits," Perez said. "When it's done in the wrong way, eligible voters get hurt."
Perez also noted that the numbers of noncitizens registered to vote has been inflated. Last year, Gessler estimated that 11,805 noncitizens were registered, but that number has steadily shrunk.