WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred Wednesday over whether voter ID laws, attempts to purge voter rolls and restricted early voting were legitimate efforts to stop fraud or mainly Republican strategies to hold down Democratic votes.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the state GOP aimed its efforts at Hispanics and African-Americans. They cited as one example the elimination of early voting on the Sunday before the election, when members of those groups historically vote after church.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the panel, defended Republican efforts to clear the rolls of ineligible voters and was backed by two Republican secretaries of state — Matt Schultz of Iowa and Ken Bennett of Arizona.

"I believe voter ID laws are common sense measures to prevent voter fraud," Grassley said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had sharp exchanges with the Republican secretaries of state over their attempts to find ineligible voters.

"Do you have evidence of non-citizens voting in Iowa?" Durbin asked Schultz.

"Since August 2012 six people have been arrested," Schultz said.

Responding to another question from Durbin, Schultz said 1.6 million Iowans voted in the last election.

"There are six cases," Durbin repeated.

Schultz said: "That is what we have so far. We just started the investigation in August."

Under prompting from Grassley, Schultz said he has been trying to get access to a Homeland Security Department database that tracks who is a legal resident eligible to receive government benefits. He said he has been stonewalled by the federal agency.

Bennett said Arizona prosecuted about 15 cases in the past 18 months of people who voted in Arizona and another state in the same election. But he added that counties have removed hundreds of people from voting rolls each month when jury forms found they were not citizens.

Bennett said 2.3 million people cast ballots in Arizona during the last election.

Comment on this story

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, complained that across the country "thousands of letters have been sent to persons who have been erroneously identified as non-citizens because of the use of flawed driver's license databases."

Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat in the South Carolina legislature, said attempts to impose a voter ID law would have suppressed the African-American vote, because "a voter residing in the easternmost part of my district would have to incur the costs of traveling approximately 70 miles roundtrip to the county seat to obtain a photo ID."