COLORADO — A young Associated Press reporter has won accolades for staying on the story of the search for noncitizen voters in Colorado—a search spearheaded by Secretary of State Scott Gessler whose 2011 estimate of 11,805 potential noncitizens on state voter rolls recently shrank to 141 and then shrank some more.

Earlier this month, AP awarded Ivan Moreno its weekly $300 “Best of State” prize for his work showing how Gessler, a Republican elected in 2010, based his controversial campaign to weed out illegal voters this election year on gross overestimates of the problem. In an October 4th memo to AP staff, Kristin Gazlay—the AP’s managing editor for state news, financial news, and global training—cited Moreno’s “diligent, determined and deft accountability reporting on a key political issue.”

In July, Moreno reported on Secretary of State Gessler’s goal to “move expeditiously” with his efforts to remove noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls ahead of an August 8 federal deadline. Moreno’s reporting culminated in a
a late September piece which addressed voter-registration investigations by Republican officials across several states and showed that these officials “who promised to root out voter fraud so far are finding little evidence of a widespread problem.” AP’s Gazlay called this story “the first national look at GOP efforts to attribute voter fraud to non-citizens in key election states.”

In 2011, as Moreno wrote in September, Gessler estimated that 11,805 noncitizens were on state voter rolls, but his numbers kept shrinking. Ultimately, after a months-long effort, the secretary of state said he could conclusively identify only 35 noncitizens who cast votes in past elections.

Wrote Moreno:

After [Gessler’s] office sent letters to 3,903 registered voters questioning their status, the number of noncitizens now stands at 141, based on checks using a federal immigration database. Of those 141, Gessler said 35 have voted in the past. The 141 are .004 percent of the state’s nearly 3.5 million voters.

Even those numbers could be fewer.

The Denver clerk and recorder’s office found that eight of those 35 who voted appear to be citizens. So Moreno tracked them down to find out. He reported:

Kevin Biln, an Adams County resident on the list, said he didn’t know he was registered and maintains that he’s never voted. Another voter on the list, Erica Zelfand, a Canadian immigrant, said she’s a US citizen no longer living in Colorado. Robert Giron said he was furious that the 20-year-old daughter he adopted from Mexico was listed as having illegally voted. He said she went to the Denver clerk’s office with her US passport and other documents to prove her eligibility to vote.

As CJR has previously noted, Gessler has undertaken a number of voter initiatives that have come in for criticism from liberal groups and voter-rights organizations, among them his decision to order county clerks to cease mailing ballots to “inactive voters”—defined as registered voters who failed to cast ballots in the 2010 general election and didn’t respond to mailed notices.

Moreno told me in a recent interview that he’s been following Gessler’s efforts to find noncitizen voters since the 2011 Colorado legislative session, when Gessler supported a bill that would have authorized the state to contact suspected noncitizens and ask them to verify their citizen status or be removed from voter rolls. The bill never passed, but this summer Gessler went ahead and sent letters to 3,903 people he suspected were noncitizens. “It was interesting that he would do it now, and there was always some question about whether he needed legislative approval, so I thought it was kind of an interesting thing to follow,” Moreno said.

After Gessler’s office issued a news release in August announcing he’d sent the letters, Moreno filed a request under the Colorado Open Records Act for the recipients’ names. The secretary of state denied the request on the grounds it was an ongoing investigation. So Moreno said he asked for a breakdown of the party registrations.

“One of the biggest complaints by Democrats is that these efforts target mainly Democrats and unaffiliated voters,” said Moreno. “So I thought, here’s a chance to look at this empirically and see if it was the case.”

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.