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Decisions show partisan bent in election managers

Thursday - 11/1/2012, 2:43am  ET

Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - 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.

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