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.”

Moreno’s efforts paid off. Gessler’s office, which Moreno credits with always dealing openly with him, promptly produced the party registrations, which showed, as Moreno reported in August, the “vast majority of registered voters who received letters were Democrats or independent voters.” This, Moreno wrote, “renewed skepticism” that Gessler “has a political motivation in sending the letters,” although he has “repeatedly denied claims that party registration plays a factor in his efforts to make sure ineligible voters are not on rolls.”

(Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Secretary of State Gessler, told CJR on Friday that
“outside groups are trying to leverage” Gessler’s attempt to purge voter rolls of noncitizens and turn the secretary of state into a “bogeyman.”

A widespread perception on the left is that Gessler’s office has been targeting Hispanics in his voter-roll purge. But when asked to identify the nationality of most suspected noncitizen voters, Coolidge told me it runs the gamut, although Canadians seem to “stand out.” Coolidge said accusations by the left that the secretary of state has been targeting illegal immigrants from Mexico are politically motivated.

Coolidge also said that Denver voting officials “are playing loose with the facts.” Of the 35 people Gessler’s office identified who voted in the past and who swore they were citizens, Coolidge said that it is their word only. “Denver ‘verified’ they were citizens, but all they had to do was check a ‘yes’ box,” Coolidge said. Denver County decided there was “no need to look further,” Coolidge said. The secretary of state has identified additional “vulnerabilities” in the voter rolls and will be announcing them soon, he said. “The list is going to be cleaner than ever before.”)

In his reporting, Moreno said he faced several challenges, starting with the lack of an authoritative list of US citizens. “As far as I know, there’s no one single federal database that keeps track of who is and who is not a citizen, so a lot of the times what elected officials end up doing is cross referencing them from different databases, and that makes it really hard.”

For example, Colorado looked at Department of Motor Vehicle records to find people who used green cards to verify their identity to obtain a driver’s license, Moreno said. “They’ve shown evidence they’re not a citizen,” he said. Later, when their names show up on voter rolls, “it creates this question of, ‘Are there people on the voting list who are not citizens?’”

“What makes it trickier it that just because at one point you showed a green card at the DMV and then were on a voting list a year later, there’s no easy way to tell during that one year if you became naturalized. So just because you’re on one list and not the other is not entirely conclusive.”

Another challenge was writing the complicated story “in a way people could understand it. There were a lot of numbers and difficult terms people haven’t heard before.” Moreno said he concentrated on making sure he was “as fair as possible to both sides” and said he is proud none of his sources has accused him of bias.

Moreno added he feels other Colorado reporters—like Patrick Malone of the Fort Collins Coloradoan, and The Denver Post’s Sara Burnett and Tim Hoover—did equally strong work on the story. “It’s not like I lifted the lid off some corruption by government. It’s nice to get accolades, but I don’t fee like I did anything that was extraordinary.”

The biggest lesson Moreno said he learned was that persistence pays. “You can’t get discouraged if your first couple of stories aren’t home runs or even base hits. If you think a story has potential, keep going.”

Related stories:

Assignment Desk: The authoritative take on Colorado’s controversial secretary of state

Protecting the polls in North Carolina

Michigan media on voter fraud

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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.