Republican election official shut out of Colorado Dems’ election reform efforts

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Colorado Democrats are moving forward with legislation that would drastically change how people in the state vote, but the Republican official in charge of overseeing elections says he’s been shut out of the process.

In fact, Secretary of State Scott Gessler said that no Republican lawmakers were consulted on a bill that will require that every registered voter receive a mail-in ballot and allow unregistered voters to register as late as Election Day.

The reforms open the door to voter fraud, Gessler said.

But when he tried to get involved in crafting the legislation, which he called a 123-page rewrite of Colorado election law, Gessler says he was “regularly rebuffed” by the bill’s primary sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon and the Colorado County Clerk’s Association, one of its main backers.

Yet liberal groups seem to have had a great deal of input into the bill.

In an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation, Gessler said he obtained a copy of the first 100 pages of a draft “from someone who was disgusted with the process.”

He said it contained notes referencing Martha Tierney, a lawyer for the Colorado Democratic Party; Elena Nunez, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause; and Sean Hinga, the state political and legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

“There were drafters’ notes in there saying ‘ask these people for information on how we resolve this issue, or how we do that,'” he said. “So those were really the sorts of people who were driving this.”

Gessler’s impression is bolstered by an email published by MediaTrackers that shows even more liberal-leaning and progressive groups may have been involved.

In the email, Nunez sent a draft of the bill to nine recipients for review. They included Tierney and Hinga, but also a representative of America Votes, which describes itself on its website as advancing “progressive policies”; several county clerks, including those in Democratic strongholds in Boulder and Denver counties; and Carolyn Siegel, a lobbyist and former political director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

Siegel also worked with ACORN in both Chicago and Colorado, according to her biography on her company’s website.

The email was sent March 25, several weeks before the bill was eventually introduced.

By comparison, Gessler was given four minutes to talk on the bill when it was heard in committee on Monday, the same amount of time as other elected officials.

He described the whole process as a “partisan power play,” with Democrats trying to capitalize on their majority status in both chambers of the state legislature.

“I see it as petty and small minded,” Gessler said.

Gessler said he didn’t necessarily mind the short time he had to address the committee — with questions, he ended up talking for about 25 minutes — but was bothered by what he called a lack of knowledge the sponsors displayed about how the state’s voter registration system, called SCORE, works.

“The sponsors had no idea how SCORE worked and they actually had no idea how the bill would be interpreted in critical provisions,” he said. “The sponsors are clearly clueless about how this bill works. … It was very clear that the Democrats had their minds made up before they came into that session.”

Democrats, however, aren’t the only ones supporting the bill. Donetta Davidson, the former Republican secretary of state who now heads the Colorado County Clerk’s Association, told the Denver Post editorial board that the bill was a “model for the nation.”

Indeed, its backers say mail-in ballots are more convenient for voters and have proved to be the most popular method of casting a ballot in Colorado. Those who want to vote in person can still do so at county-level voting centers. And supporters say real-time databases make registering, even on Election Day, safe from those who might try to vote more than once.

While some Republican clerks are opposed to the bill on the same grounds as Gessler — who says it foists a “one-size fits all” approach on counties with diverse needs, and that it will cost money rather than save money — other Republican clerks openly support it.

This is hardly the first time Gessler has clashed with other election officials over voting rules. In 2011, he sued the Denver County Clerk and Recorder for sending mail ballots to inactive voters, whom he’d earlier decided were ineligible to receive them. His critics have called it an attempt to suppress votes in heavily Democratic districts. Gessler lost the lawsuit.

Gessler said Davidson’s support of the election reform bill, and that of other Republican clerks, is just “window dressing.”

“If this were really bipartisan, they would have had the courage and the courtesy to talk to a single Republican legislator and/or my office and they didn’t,” he said. “How can you exclude every single Republican legislator? How can you exclude the chief election official in the state of Colorado and call yourself bipartisan?”

The bill cleared the House’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Monday on a 7-4 party line vote, ending the chance for outside input into the process. But Gessler said he’s not done fighting. He said he will now focus on Gov. John Hickenlooper, who will ultimately sign the bill into law if it clears both the House and Senate.

“The governor’s office was very clear at the beginning of the session that they valued a bipartisan approach to things,” Gessler said. “And this is the exact opposite of that, this is a partisan effort that is being shoved down peoples’ throats at the last second.”

“This is a lousy piece of legislation that’s been produced in a lousy way,” he said. “The people of Colorado deserve better, especially when it comes to the foundation of our representative democracy.”

Pabon, the bill’s sponsor, did not reply to requests for comment.

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Greg Campbell