A more than 100-page sweeping election reform bill is likely to be introduced by Democrats in the Senate next week, covering everything from moving voter registration deadlines to mailing ballots to inactive voters.
Even before the bill has reached its final draft, Secretary of State Scott Gessler and fellow Republicans have pounced on the proposal, concerned that the bill would create same-day voter registration. The GOP is also critical of what they consider to be a “secretive” drafting process. Gessler said he hasn’t yet seen a draft of the bill.
Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, said she would carry the late bill when it is introduced by the end of next week. Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, would be the House sponsors. The measure would likely:
• Expand voter options, including mail ballots, while providing polling places for those who need it;
• Permit county clerks to mail ballots to inactive-failed-to-vote electors;
• Move voter registration deadlines, which could include same-day; and
• Create a uniform voting and tabulation system.
Lawmakers are also examining reforming canvassing and poll watcher rules, while refining the election night reporting system.
Giron said the bill aims to empower voters and grow registration rolls, as well as bring about necessary reform.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am, and how fortunate that I feel to be able to have this kind of impact, because I definitely think it’s going to have a huge impact in our state…” Giron told The Colorado Statesman. “There is no other state that has the kind of options that we’re going to be able to provide our voters, and so what’s exciting to me… is that’s about participation, and people getting engaged in what’s happening in our state. I’m just really thrilled.”
Many of the recommendations mirror those suggested by the County Clerks Association, who in November sent a letter to lawmakers recommending several legislative proposals.
For the most part the association appears supportive of the effort. The 64 clerks have not yet officially decided whether to support the legislation, noting that the bill is still being drafted. But a statement e-mailed to The Statesman from the clerks association indicates their willingness to see the reforms enacted.
“Colorado’s County Clerks — Republicans and Democrats — have long advocated reforming our laws to reflect their desire for convenient and secure elections,” reads the statement. “This includes a mail ballot delivery system with several options on how the vote may be cast, while ensuring accurate election results.
“We are encouraged by the spirit of the legislation we understand is under consideration,” the statement continues. “We urge the Secretary of State and other leaders involved with elections to join us in discussing the future of Colorado elections.”
Gessler furious over effort
Gessler groaned in agony when he heard the statement from the clerks, boisterously stating: “They invite me to join them! They invite me to join them!
“Why are they behaving in secret, too? Why are they hiding from their constituents? Why are they unwilling to publicly discuss this stuff? Why are they doing it in secrecy?” Gessler asked of the clerks. “They’re doing a real disservice to the State of Colorado.”
Above all, the secretary of state is outraged with a drafting process that he considers to be secretive. He believes Democrats will attempt to ram the legislation through with only a month left in the session.
“How the hell can they rewrite the state election code in such as way that it excludes half of the entire legislature, the people who have expertise from a secretary of state’s standpoint?” he asked. “These people are just crazy. They have no interest in creating a good system. They are interested in shoving through an agenda.”
Gessler blamed Democratic leaders, suggesting that they are hypocrites for having suggested a bipartisan agenda at the beginning of the legislative session.
“You heard at the beginning of this legislative session the majority legislators talk about collaboration and cooperation and consensus. How wonderful they were going to be to work together. And they are completely hypocritical, they do not live up to their word, and they’re just pushing talking points on the people when in reality what they’re doing is shoving through an agenda with no consensus, no cooperation and no collaboration,” declared the conservative secretary.
He is worried that the changes would lead to problems with the election system : “If we have problems in the 2013, 2014 election if this goes through, I’ll tell you where it’s going to come from, it’s going to come from piss-poor thinking on the other side,” Gessler asserted.
He has the support of Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, whose organization has been pushing press releases opposing the unfinished legislation.
The GOP has said that the bill would force an all-mail ballot system, but sponsors and stakeholders have vehemently denied that other voting options would be eliminated.
Fears that the measure would allow same-day voter registration is also concerning Republicans, worried that such a system could cause fraud.
“The last thing Coloradans want is the legitimacy of our elections cast into doubt because of the serious potential for voter fraud,” Call said in a statement. “Our current system helps prevent ineligible or multiple ballots from being cast, but same-day voter registration opens the door to fraud in a way that all citizens should find deeply troubling.”
Republicans believe Democrats are caving to unions and liberal special interests, which might benefit politically by registering more voters, who are often young and minority Democratic-leaning electors.
“This is nothing more than a partisan power-grab by Democrats, taken at the expense of integrity in our election,” said Call.
Democrats and stakeholders defend drafting
But Giron said there is nothing different about this drafting process compared to other bills she’s crafted.
“To me that’s no different than any other bill that I’ve ever worked on in the three years that I’ve been here. And no one’s ever called anything that I’ve ever worked on before secretive,” said Giron. “Usually people don’t want to comment on anything when you’re asking for their support until they can see the language. So, I’m surprised that Secretary Gessler believes this is secretive.”
Pabon pointed out that he was prepared to present the bill to an upcoming Department of State Best Practices and Vision Commission meeting. But he told The Statesman on Thursday that he was disinvited.
Stakeholders, however, have been a bit more candid in explaining why Gessler has not been brought to the table. The stakeholder group — calling themselves Integrity and Modernization for Colorado Elections — includes Colorado Common Cause, Vet Voice Foundation, 9to5 Colorado, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, New Era Colorado and Mi Familia Vota.
Ellen Dumm, spokeswoman for the coalition, said Gessler was never included because he has never expressed an interest in working with stakeholders on a legitimate reform effort.
“We wanted to get the folks who had their boots on the ground,” explained Dumm. “I think from our perspective… I would say that [Gessler] has made it very clear that he’s philosophically opposed to this. So, it didn’t feel productive to have him at the table yet.”
Gessler retorted, “That’s a way of them saying, ‘Our way, or the highway. We don’t want to include any other opinions, and we’re going to operate in secrecy.’”
Stakeholders are hopeful that once Gessler and Republicans see the bill, they won’t be as concerned as it seems. They believe there will be common ground on voter options.
Even the contentious inactive-failed-to-vote issue has seen compromise from Gessler, who has backed off prohibiting clerks from mailing ballots to electors who failed to vote in the previous even-year general election.
Denver and Pueblo counties won initial lawsuits against Gessler that allowed them to mail ballots to inactive voters. Gessler later agreed to work with Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson on a bill addressing the issue.
But he is concerned that the intent of that legislation will be included in the election reform bill, and not separately.
“We have proven that when you have sticky issues we’re willing to hold public hearings on this, we’re willing to reach out and talk to people who don’t agree with us,” said Gessler. “Deb Johnson’s a perfect example. We’re willing to forge thoughtful solutions here in Colorado.”
Giron remains confident that she will be able to gain the support of Republicans and the secretary of state’s office.
“I believe that we’re probably on the same page, and he’s going to get to see it pretty quick here,” said Giron. “He’ll certainly have time to… comment… But I think he’s going to feel comfortable.”