"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.
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