Every week for more than two years, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has turned over driver's license information to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office to weed out non-U.S. citizens who may try to register to vote. But the Secretary of State's Office, the state's chief election agency, has not used the information because it didn't know it had it.

Ritchie's office now says it will begin cross-referencing the data starting next week, in time to purge the voting rolls of any noncitizens before Election Day.

The office cited confusion over U.S. Homeland Security rules for failing to use the information.

The recent change came about because state Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, raised questions about the failure of Ritchie's office to cross-reference the so-called "status check'' on visa-holders' driver's licenses.

Even if the number of noncitizens who may try to vote is small, Brod said the implications of failing to use the information are significant.

"There's almost a dismissal of the issue unless there is rampant voter fraud," said Brod, the lead Republican on the House Government Operations Committee and a frequent critic of DFLer Ritchie's office. "What they suggest to me is there is a problem. Any time you have one voter, who is a legal voter, have their vote negated by an illegal vote it should matter."

In the 2006 election, five noncitizens were later found to have voted. They were removed from voter registration rolls and three of the cases were referred to county attorneys for possible prosecution for intentional voting fraud, a felony.

The driver's license division of the Department of Public Safety has provided the "status check" information since September of 2006 as part of the federal Help America Vote Act. The "status check" is a date on a visa-holder's driver's license intended to flag law enforcement officers if the driver overstays the visa.

The status-check data is the only way election officials can identify noncitizens who try to vote.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said Friday he only found out three weeks ago that the status-check information was routinely being made available to his office. Before that, he said he had been operating under a 2006 department e-mail indicating the status check could only be released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

When he recently checked, it turned out the office was getting the information from the Department of Public Safety all along.

"I was told, 'We do provide that data and we've been willing to provide that data. You had access to that data but you never used it,'" Gelbmann said.

Brod said she was concerned about how long it took Ritchie's office to recognize the issue.

"I'm wondering if it's a competency issue or an issue of not wanting to see it," she said.

Gelbmann said the status-check information could prove valuable but remains potentially flawed with false positives. People who become citizens before their driver's license expires would show up on the database, for example. On the other hand, permanent non-citizen residents don't have status checks on their licenses, so the driver's license data would not alert election officials that they are ineligible.

If someone with a status-check license votes, that will be checked within two weeks of the election and irregularities will be forwarded to the appropriate county attorney, Gelbmann said.

Ritchie said the status-check reviews are part of a larger confirmation process that he described as "the premier election system in the country." Every night, records of newly registered voters are entered into the Statewide Voter Registration System database. The records are transmitted electronically to the Department of Public Safety for verification.

"It's more information that we will have to process, but we're now getting data. It's a tiny part of the larger matching that we have to do," Ritchie said.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636