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Election official could be pivotal in battleground Colorado

Updated at 6:19 pm ET Scott Gessler isn’t a household name in national politics, but could become famous in a hurry, just as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris did during the 2000 presidential recount.

Colorado’s swing state pattern in the last five presidential elections makes its nine electoral votes loom large this November.

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In this file photo, Mica Rickman, 1, reaches out to his mother, Carly Fridlich as she votes at the Gilpin County Community Center on November 2, 2010 outside of Central City, Colorado.

And, as Colorado’s Republican secretary of state, elected in 2010, Gessler could have a decisive influence on the November outcome in the state. He has launched efforts to remove ineligible people from the voter rolls. And if it’s a close vote, he would preside over any recount and be the official who certifies the state’s electoral vote to the U.S. House of Representatives after the election.

Gessler scored a victory last week when the Department of Homeland Security agreed to let his agency to use DHS databases of non-citizens to cross-check the list of Colorado voters to ensure that non-citizens are not registered.

Gessler spoke on voter fraud Thursday at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation in Washington along with two of his fellow Republicans, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.

He said in an interview afterward that his agency hasn’t yet signed a memorandum of understanding with DHS on using its SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) system. “I’m hoping we’ll get it done in the next week or two,” he said.

One of Gessler’s starting points was a list of Colorado voters who had driver’s licenses which indicated they were not U.S. citizens. For voters who come up as positive matches in the SAVE system as non-citizens, Gessler said, “I anticipate what we’re going to be doing is sending them a letter and giving them yet another opportunity to correct any error there may be.”

The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) bars states, within 90 days of an election, from conducting a systematic program to remove ineligible people from its voter lists.

Under NVRA, Colorado might face an Aug. 8 deadline to remove names from its list, but Gessler said “there’s a real question as to whether that Aug. 8 deadline even applies” because if the state sends a letter to each person asking him or her to clarify their status, the voter verification effort won’t be a systemic voting list purge and therefore won’t fall within the NVRA’s window.

And a recent decision by federal district court Judge Robert Hinkle in Florida said the NVRA deadline applies only in cases of people who were originally properly registered – they were U.S. citizens – but were subsequently removed from the voter rolls due to their death or moving out of the state or having been convicted of a felony. Hinkle’s ruling makes clear that the NVRA deadline doesn’t apply to non-citizens who never should have been registered in the first place, Gessler said.

One of Gessler’s critics, Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, said someone’s name might be in the SAVE system “because they accessed federal benefits while here on a green card, but since then have become citizens. Certainly it is not designed to be a voter database, it was created in order to address another nonexistent problem - that of unauthorized immigrants accessing Medicaid and welfare.”

When will the partisan politics end?  NBC's Mike Viqueira takes a look at the divided land that is the district, and the nation as a whole.

Gessler said that the fact that someone has subsequently become a U.S. citizen will be reflected in the SAVE system.

Schwartz asked, “What will happen with the names that aren't able to be crosschecked against the SAVE database? Do those names remain in question and what is Gessler's process (for dealing with such voters)?”

He promised, “I’m not going to strike someone from the voter rolls unless I’m very confident that they’re not a citizen…. I need very strong evidence on an individual basis before taking action.”

Gessler’s critics accuse him of obstructing eligible voters in an effort to hold down voter turnout. He’s engaged in a dispute with some county clerks in Colorado over sending ballots to inactive voters (those who missed one election); some Democrats say he’s depriving people of their vote, Gessler says he’s enforcing the law.

In his remarks at Heritage, Gessler scoffed that “some of this disenfranchisement hysteria is frankly silly.” He called ProgressNow Colorado part of “the professional angry left” and “who do their ankle biting stuff which is what they always do against Republicans.”

His pungent rhetoric is a reminder that the state officials in charge of administering elections in an impartial way are elected by the voters and run on a Democratic or Republican line. University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen notes in his new book The Voting Wars, “Other modern democracies, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, put nonpartisan officials in charge of their elections.”

Schwartz said in a recent Denver Post op-ed that Gessler has "gone to great lengths and expense to put obstacles in the way of eligible voters -- without evidence that voter fraud is a problem at all in Colorado." Gessler maintains that not only does fraud occur, but in a close election it could be decisive. He decried what he called a “see no evil, hear no evil culture”-- people who refuse to admit that vote fraud has happened.

“Some of the same people who see massive corruption when it comes to the campaign finance system” just assume that “our hearts have become pure” when to comes to balloting. But he said most Americans “intuitively understand” that in complicated endeavor like conducting an election with a voting population of 3.4 million, “there is a small proportion of people who will when tempted do the wrong thing.” And he said, “Political power as gained through elections is a temptation.”

To one critic in the audience at the Heritage Foundation event who asked why states are requiring additional steps such as proof of citizenship when people register to vote, since the current system in most states works fine, Gessler replied, “The system doesn’t work and we have plenty of evidence of that in state of Colorado.” He said there were more than 400 cases of people in Colorado in recent years who asked to be removed from the voter rolls because they weren’t citizens and people who attempted to register to vote even after having checked the “I am not a U.S. citizen” box on their application.

No matter how low his national profile has been so far, Gessler is becoming part of the 2012 campaign theme of voter fraud and vote suppression. For some Democrats, efforts such as Gessler’s are one more reason to turn out and vote.

But Gessler’s view is that by using the voter suppression argument, “people on the left are manipulating their base” to divert attention from what Americans really care about: the economy.

 “People care that unemployment is horrific. The African-American community, in particular, has been hit by unemployment and loss of family wealth. Economically we are an absolute basket case with no bright prospects down the road…. So that’s the context. What are they (his opponents) arguing? ‘Pay no attention to our economic malaise. The other guy is evil.’ And frankly I think it’s demagoguery and manipulation,” he said.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Alan Wilson as South Carolina's secretary of state. He is South Carolina's attorney general.