Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler on Monday defended using office resources to clear non-citizens from state voter rolls. His remarks came as Democratic lawmakers grilled the secretary over glitches with online voter registration, prohibiting mailing of ballots to inactive voters, and controversial relationships with county clerks.
Gessler presented his Department of State’s annual update to the Joint State, Veterans and Military Affairs committees, during which the briefing turned into an opportunity for Democrats to ask contentious questions of the secretary. With Democrats leading the joint committee, Gessler had few allies, though Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, came to the conservative secretary’s aid.
“I don’t want to treat you as a defendant, though you may feel like some of the questions that were put to you appear that way,” quipped Harvey.
Democrats continued to unapologetically hammer Gessler, mostly fired up over his office’s use of resources to purge non-citizen voters from the rolls.
Gessler said that when he took office two years ago, there were 220 voter registrations cancelled because of non-citizen status. He said that number has since increased to 522.
“The fact remains that non-citizens can register and vote undetected,” Gessler addressed lawmakers. “Our system remains vulnerable as to non-citizens registering to vote.”
The secretary said much of the problem lies with misinformation circulating from the general public and media, as well as from volunteers who register people to vote, and even from election judges. As evidence, he read a letter from an anonymous immigrant who is lawfully residing in Douglas County.
“As an innocent immigrant, and without enough knowledge, I did vote twice because I thought that this was my obligation and duty,” Gessler
read the letter. “If I didn’t vote, my situation as an immigrant will be jeopardized.”
Gessler said the note is evidence that, “We need to do a better job identifying these voters and removing them from the voter rolls before they receive a ballot, potentially jeopardizing their path to citizenship by committing a felony.”
The secretary is proposing two pieces of legislation to address the issue. The first would expand the state’s Administrative Procedure Act to include rules regarding non-citizen voters. Gessler believes his office can remove non-citizens from the rolls without disenfranchising voters.
“Obviously we don’t want to remove any eligible voters from the rolls, so this is a safeguard to prevent that from happening,” Gessler addressed the joint committee. “It’s a reasoned and careful approach to provide due process as we work to make sure only eligible citizens are registered and voting.”
The second bill Gessler is proposing would offer training for all voter registration drive workers to ensure that misinformation does not spread about non-citizen voting.
Gessler said his office would also continue to crosscheck records with at least 18 other states that have entered into cooperation to ensure that voter information is lawful and accurate.
But Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, expressed grave concerns about focusing on non-citizen voters. She pointed out that Gessler’s office sent communications to suspected non-citizen voters, and that often those people turned out to be lawful voters. In fact, Gessler sent an estimated 4,000 letters, and found only about 400 non-citizens, or around 12 percent.
“How much money did taxpayers spend to send letters to people who actually were citizens and eligible voters, implying to them that they were not?” asked Hudak. “And why was this database that you used to get that list so inaccurate?”
Gessler answered that the cost was only about $8,000. He pointed out that business fees, not taxes, fund his office. The secretary also took offense to Hudak’s comment that his office was accusing people of being illegal voters.
“The letters did not imply that they couldn’t vote,” he replied. “The letters specifically asked them to help ensure the accuracy of our voter rolls… It was not a threatening letter.”
Freshman Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, also appeared concerned about the reliability of databases used to identify non-citizen voters. He pointed to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE program. Salazar said studies have found that the SAVE Program is unreliable.
“I’m trying to reconcile this paradox here of you talking about wanting to preserve the integrity of our voting process, but then you use a program that is inherently unreliable,” questioned Salazar.
Gessler retorted: “We all agree that we need integrity in our elections systems. I think we all agree that non-citizens should not be voting. I think we all agree that non-citizens have voted. But if you have a better idea on how to clean the voter rolls, I’m all ears.”
Harvey came to Gessler’s defense, suggesting: “This is an important aspect of what you do — making sure that every vote is counted, and that every voter that is voting is an eligible voter in the State of Colorado. We don’t want to have any of our elections swayed by people who should not be voting, and we don’t want to have our vote diluted by somebody’s vote that should not be voting.”
A heated exchange also took place over the issue of mailing ballots to so-called “inactive voters,” or voters who did not vote in the previous even-year general election. Gessler has remained steadfast that those voters should not receive a mail ballot without verifying their status.
The debate pitted him against Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson. She filed a lawsuit against Gessler after the secretary enacted rules prohibiting sending mail ballots to inactive voters.
Democrats attempted to address the issue last year with an amended bill that would have permitted county clerks to mail ballots to inactive voters. But the measure died in a Republican-controlled committee. Gessler said he is working with Johnson to find a compromise, which will come in the form of a bill this year.
“Over the past couple of months, my office has worked very closely with Denver County Clerk and Recorder Deb Johnson to find middle ground…” remarked Gessler. “After fleshing out the issue, we have come… to an approach that balances with the safeguards that voters expect.”
Johnson has confirmed to The Colorado Statesman that she has been working with Gessler’s office on the bill.
Despite the apparent compromise, Democrats still berated Gessler for having pushed the prohibition in the first place.
“I don’t think we need to compromise on sending ballots to inactive voters…” commented Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville. “We should send ballots to people who are there and can vote… Obviously that wasn’t your point of view in this last election. I don’t know what compromise you’re working on, but for me it’s a pretty simple solution: We should be encouraging people to vote.”
Glitches with online voter registration
Gessler also defended his department after a glitch in the online voter registration system resulted in nearly 800 Coloradans left without an active voter registration, despite filling out the correct information.
“About 700, or 800 voters who thought they were registered didn’t get registered,” Hudak reminded Gessler. “What are you doing to solve those problems?”
Gessler said his office has already addressed the problem, noting that the glitch was with the mobile registration system. He said his office publicized the issue at the time, and passed an emergency rule allowing those voters to cast their ballots provisionally.
“If they were able to read… then it shouldn’t have been a problem,” Gessler said of those affected by the error.
Tensions with county clerks
Salazar raised one final area of recent frustration, which is Gessler’s tumultuous relationship with county clerks. Salazar pointed to four lawsuits with county clerks in Arapahoe, Saguache, Denver and El Paso counties.
“Would you agree that your relationships with the county clerks was a bit rocky this election season?” Salazar asked Gessler.
“No, I would not,” Gessler simply replied, before suggesting that he should continue with the briefing, and not immediately address side issues.
For Gessler, the purpose of his office is to serve the American Dream, not become entrenched in controversies, though he acknowledged it is often difficult to avoid political debates.
“We work to serve the American Dream, and we do that in two ways: We do it through helping people participate in elections, and then helping people launch their businesses, which I think many people would agree represents democracy,” asserted Gessler. “The ability to form businesses and have economic self-sufficiency are two components of the American Dream.”