DENVER–The Obama administration finally blinked Monday in its years-long stand-off with state elections officials by agreeing to cooperate with efforts to identify illegal voters in Colorado and other states.
Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced Monday that a Homeland Security official had agreed to check the state’s growing list of suspected non-citizen voters against a federal database, the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements [SAVE] program.
“As Colorado’s chief election official, protecting our elections is my top priority,” said Gessler in a statement. “I’m pleased that DHS has agreed to work with the states to verify the citizenship of people on the voter rolls and help reduce our vulnerability.”
The sudden change of heart comes days after the White House relented to Florida’s demand for access to the database of resident non-citizens, and a week after elections officials from 11 states backed Gessler’s call for the department’s cooperation in checking voter rolls.
In separate letters dated July 9, Gessler and Attorney General John Suthers urged the department to sign on to a memorandum of understanding outlining a process for checking the state voter rolls against the SAVE database.
“The Attorney General believes the secretary was on solid legal ground,” said Suthers spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler.
Gessler has butted heads with Homeland Security officials for a year in an effort to gain access to the database. The breakthrough came last week when a federal judge ruled against the White House in its battle to prevent Florida from using the federal database to verify the citizenship status of suspected illegal voters.
Last weekend, John Roessler, chief of the SAVE program at Homeland Security, made an appearance at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference. He met with Gessler Monday to discuss entering into the proposed memorandum of understanding, said Gessler spokesman Andrew Cole.
“The details need to be worked out, but they’re interested in moving forward,” said Cole.
The move was widely characterized as a victory for Republicans, who have called for stiffer voter-identification requirements and other reforms as part of a state-based clean-elections movement. Democrats, backed by immigrant-rights groups, have argued that the effort could result in disenfranchising legal voters.
The issue could also have an impact on the presidential race. Several of the states attempting to verify voter eligibility are critical swing states, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio.
Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said she wasn’t surprised by Gessler’s announcement after learning that the Obama administration had decided to work with Florida.
“We’re concerned about list-maintenance efforts right before an election,” said Nunez. “But we’re optimistic that the involvement of Homeland Security will be a strong safeguard to make sure that eligible voters aren’t taken off the voter rolls.”
Critics have argued that there is no significant voter fraud in Colorado, even as Gessler has uncovered thousands of Colorado voters who have either identified themselves as non-citizens or presented alien-resident documents when registering to vote.
Gessler wants to verify the status of 5,000 suspected illegal voters, about 2,000 of whom have previously cast ballots, noting that some of them may have become citizens since they registered and would thus be eligible to vote in November.
Colorado has about 3.4 million registered voters, and analysts agree a few hundred votes could decide the outcome in close races.
“Coloradans deserve to know that we have these most basic protections for election integrity,” said Gessler.