Voting bill ignites Capitol firestorm

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

An effort by Secretary of State Bernie Buescher and Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, to allow for same-day voter registration has stirred up a firestorm of criticism at the state capitol and beyond.

Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, visits with 17-year-old senior Paige Milstein, left, and 18-year-old senior Rhea Boyd as they pre-register on the state’s new online voter registration system. Over at the Capitol, another voting measure is attracting a lot more controversy.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

The controversy has included accusations of arm-twisting and a lack of input from county clerks who are responsible for implementing election law changes, versus claims of cooperation from the clerks association that couldn’t be verified.

Wednesday, Carroll and Buescher met with the leadership of the Colorado County Clerks Association in an effort to cool down tempers over the bill. And Wednesday evening, Buescher and Carroll sent out a joint statement with the clerks association promising to work together on improvements to voter registration but without promising any legislation this session.

Last week, a draft bill on modernizing the voter registration system was circulated by Carroll to the minority party and the clerks association, and that’s where the trouble started.

Components of the plan include allowing young people to pre-register to vote as early as age 16, and registering to vote at polling places during early voting and on Election Day.

The draft bill says that people who have reached age 16 can pre-register and will be automatically registered to vote when they reach age 18. The bill also includes sweeping changes to the mail-in ballot process, allowing for primary and general elections to be conducted solely by mail-in ballot statewide.

But it’s the draft bill’s language regarding voter registration on Election Day that got Republicans and some county clerks up in arms.

Current law cuts off voter registration 29 days prior to the date of the primary or general election.

Under the draft bill, for the 2010 general election, those eligible to vote can register to do so during the early voting period that ends the Friday before Election Day. Beginning with the 2012 general election, eligible voters may register to vote on Election Day by appearing in person at a service center for the precinct and with proper identification.

Buescher told The Statesman this week that he has been in discussion with county clerks about simplifying the election process for two months, and that many other states offer same-day registration.

Republicans charged that the changes would produce “ACORN-inspired voter fraud” and that provoked a strong statement in response from Carroll. And The Statesman could not find any county clerk who would admit to working on the bill. Clerks who responded to calls from The Statesman said they got their first look at the bill last week, rather than being involved from the get-go.

An e-mail obtained by The Denver Post and sent Tuesday to members of the clerks association from Karen Long of Adams County, its president, said “You should know that [clerk] representation has not been at the drafting table on this bill. We saw the first draft on Wednesday [March 31] and received a revised version on Thursday [April 1],” she wrote. “This DOES NOT make it a ‘Clerk’s bill.’”

One county clerk who said he has been working to oppose the bill is Bob Balink of El Paso County. He told The Statesman the bill was “horrible” and that only two or three clerks, working behind the scenes and on their own, had been involved in its drafting. He declined to identify them.

“We were told this year is our last chance” to get changes on the mail-in ballot process, and that in order to get those changes they would have to support same-day registration, Balink said Wednesday. But even if the clerks want the mail-in ballot system, “it’s not worth” sacrificing the integrity of the election system that would take place under same-day voter registration, he said. “The last think anyone wants is voter fraud.”

Colorado Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams Tuesday also accused Carroll and Buescher of drafting a bill that will result in voter fraud. “Colorado did not experience the vast voter fraud perpetrated by ACORN ‘community organizers’ across the nation in 2008 but Speaker Carroll seems intent on making sure it will happen in Colorado in 2010,” Wadhams charged.

In 2008, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was alleged to have committed voter fraud in as many as 12 states, according to rottenacorn.com. The website listed allegations against ACORN for submitting fake or duplicate voter registrations. In Nevada, ACORN employees were indicted on 26 charges of voter fraud; last year its former Las Vegas office director pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of conspiracy and agreed to testify against other ACORN officials, according to the Associated Press. The group has since lost its federal funding and announced last month it would shutter operations on April 1.

“Allowing people to show up on Election Day, register to vote, and then immediately cast a ballot opens the door to the kind of voter fraud Colorado has been fortunate to avoid in the past,” Wadhams said in his Tuesday statement.

Eight states already allow for Election Day registration, according to Project Vote Smart: Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Connecticut voters can register on Election Day for U.S. presidential elections only. And North Dakota has no voter registration requirement.

Wadhams and other Republicans also complained that Buescher and Carroll were trying to ram through the legislation in the final days of the 2010 session and just a few months before the November election.

Scott Gessler, a Republican candidate for Secretary of State, said Tuesday the bill would open the door to “busloads of election-day registrants — a process that opens the door to voter fraud” in part because Colorado has no photo identification requirement for registering. He also said the bill would allow organizations to hold mail ballots from voters for 10 days before delivering them, and that the fines for late or no delivery would be minimal. Voters could also vote twice under the bill, Gessler charged; once by mail ballot and once in person, and if the state went to all-mail ballot elections, that would end the possibility of voting at the local precinct.

Gessler will likely face Democrat Buescher in the November election; Buescher was appointed to his seat by Gov. Bill Ritter last year after then Secretary-of-State Mike Coffman was elected to Congress.

The controversy over the bill has made it the “ultimate political orphan,” Wadhams told The Statesman Wednesday, with Carroll claiming the bill was Buescher’s idea, Buescher claiming it was Carroll’s bill and also pointing to the clerks as the source.

Speaker Carroll released a lengthy statement Tuesday in response to the Republican charges. The legislation was drafted at the behest of county clerks, he said, to help reduce administrative burden and save taxpayer funds. Carroll said he had provided a draft of the bill to House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, and the leadership of the clerks association but that the bill was only a draft. “As any lawyer could tell you, the starting point in any negotiation is not the ending point.” Carroll also said Republican charges have been inaccurate and that his only interest is to ensure access to the ballot for eligible voters and save money, noting that it costs as much as $35 per voter for some counties to hold elections.

The bill in its current draft form also would close loopholes, Carroll said, such as limiting the types of acceptable forms of identification, instead of the long “laundry list” of identification currently allowed in statute.

But “what has happened in the past few days has been nothing more than partisan spin and Republican hysteria,” Carroll said. “Much of what’s been said and written has very little in common with the actual draft legislation, and that’s a shame…I guess I have to ask, why are Republicans so interested in making it as difficult and expensive as possible for their county clerks to hold elections? And finally, why are
Republicans scared of more people voting?”

Carroll and Buescher both maintain the bill has had input from county clerks, but both declined requests to identify even one clerk who had worked on the bill. Through a spokesperson Wednesday, Carroll told The Statesman he did not feel it would be “appropriate to name the participants at these early initial meetings” who may want to wait for the actual bill to be introduced or who may want an opportunity to talk to the leadership of the clerks’ association before commenting.

Buescher defended the plan Tuesday, continuing to insist it was a “clerks’ bill” while unveiling the state’s new online voter registration system at a public launching at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver.

Carroll and Buescher met Wednesday morning with the leadership and legislative chairs of the clerks association regarding the draft bill. He is also talking with a “bipartisan group of lawmakers,” according to Katie Reinisch of House Majority Communications. “There are supportive clerks,” Reinisch said Wednesday, adding that the bill was “written in response to the requests of some clerks.”

And in response to criticism that Democrats were trying to run the bill in the waning days of the session, Reinisch pointed out that there are still five weeks remaining, about one-third of the session.

All parties in the Wednesday meeting declined to comment directly for this story, but statements flew out of the Speaker’s office all day. Wednesday afternoon, Carroll said as a result of that morning meeting there had been a renewed “commitment to work together in refinement of policies outlined in the original draft [bill]. While the end product may look different than the original, there is a will to move forward in continued dialogue.”

Carroll said he also was continuing to work with House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, to identify Republicans who could sign onto the bill.

However, less than a half-hour later a new statement from Carroll, Buescher and the clerks association cast doubt on whether a bill would even be forthcoming.

The statement said county clerks support the idea of all-mail voting in even-year elections but said nothing about supporting changes that would allow for same-day registration. Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall, one of the association’s legislative chairs, explained that the current 29-day timeline was based on a paper system, not the state’s real-time (and now online) system.

The statement concluded by saying conversations would continue this week and no decision had been made on whether to do a bill this session.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com