Gessler has active legislative agenda

The Colorado Statesman

Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler has proposed a suite of at least a dozen separate pieces of legislation this year that run the gamut — everything from the mundane, including clearing up ballot title language and allowing notaries public to register online to the more controversial, such as cutting short the number of days early voting centers are required to stay open.

Several pieces of his agenda are already making their way through the state Legislature, including House Bill 1269, introduced by Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton. The legislation would raise the campaign finance reporting threshold for special district candidates from $20 to $200. The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a vote of 7-2 backed the proposal on Thursday.

Gessler’s office won support by pointing out that in 2010, of 3,674 special district candidates in Colorado, only 29 raised or spent more than $200.

“This is [an] efficiency that will take a major load off of our friends at the secretary of state’s office — not that they need that — but in this particular instance, I think it’s a good idea,” Kerr said during the hearing’s closing remarks.

Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Lois Court, D-Denver, were the only two lawmakers on the committee to vote against the legislation, raising concerns over limiting disclosure requirements.

“I’m always in favor of more disclosures, not less disclosures, so even though I recognize the reasonability of this, I just on principle, I can’t imagine a place in which I would believe in less disclosure,” said Court.

Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, is bolstering the secretary of state’s agenda by introducing Senate Bill 62, which would supply the elections office with $100,000 to implement a pilot program to allow out-of-state and overseas Colorado military personnel to vote online. The legislation cleared the Senate Finance Committee by a unanimous vote on Tuesday and was sent to the Senate floor with little discussion.

Senate Bill 135, introduced by Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, also had the unanimous support of lawmakers, clearing the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Monday. The legislation would provide the secretary of state with $776,460 to establish an online reporting mechanism for election night results. It now heads to appropriations.

The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Monday also unanimously cleared Senate Bill 123, which would enhance the state’s business filing system, including establishing processes for multiple filings. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said the measure is about efficiency and removing many of the hurdles businesses are forced to jump through in order to file with the secretary of state’s office. The bill also now heads to appropriations.

Another non-controversial piece of legislation in Gessler’s agenda is House Bill 1024, introduced by Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada. It would require the title board to write ballot titles in clear, nontechnical language. The legislation has already cleared the House and is awaiting hearings by the Senate.

But other legislation that Gessler is pushing may prove more controversial.

The package of election reform proposals set forth in House Bill 1267, introduced by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was scheduled for a hearing last Thursday before the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, but it was delayed because several county clerks who wanted to testify were unavailable. It is expected that the legislation will be heard this week.

HB 1267 covers a wide berth of election topics, including shrinking the window that early voting centers are required to stay open from two weeks to one week. Gessler points out that very few early voters cast ballots two weeks out, and instead drop their ballots off the week of the election. For those early voters who wish to vote prior to two weeks before the election, mail ballots are available to them, Gessler states.

He hopes that the issue doesn’t become political, as it has in the past, adding that the legislation is really about bringing cost savings to his office.

“They’re spending money for early elections and not using it,” Gessler said before taking a jab at the legislature. “But, hey, if the legislature says it’s important to use that money even though voters aren’t using it, that’s up to them.”

HB 1267 would also repeal the requirement that ballots sent by mail contain ballot stubs, and it would extend the deadline by which voter information card mailings must be made for a primary mail ballot election from 45 days to 60 days before the election.

Gessler is also awaiting House Bill 1274, introduced by Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, which would allow notaries public to register online. That bill had not been scheduled for a hearing as of Thursday, and unlike some of the others, is not expected to be very controversial.

But it is perhaps Gessler’s plans for the future that are the most ambitious. He is already reaching out to lawmakers to see if anyone will introduce legislation to develop a statewide uniform voting system. He acknowledges, however, that the proposal would be a large undertaking for the legislature, and he doesn’t expect anything for this year.

“We just want to make sure that we have a voting system that is less expensive than we are facing right now and more consistent,” said Gessler.

The secretary of state is also examining clarifying lobbyist laws to make it easier to file and search for reports, and he would like to revise election laws related to canvassing, perhaps bringing greater accountability to practices. Gessler has yet to find sponsors for those ideas.

Lawsuit forces defense

In the meantime, the secretary of state finds himself forced to defend himself and his office following the filing of a federal lawsuit on Monday by the Citizen Center, an Aspen-based advocacy organization for greater government transparency and accountability. The suit names Gessler and the county clerks of Boulder, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Eagle and Chaffee counties, and accuses them of violating voters’ constitutional right to an anonymous ballot.

Led by well-known Aspen resident Marilyn Marks, the suit seeks to halt alleged practices by Gessler and clerks that reveal to government officials the identity of voters who cast a specific ballot. Marks says Gessler has ignored complaints filed with his office about the practices.

“The right to a secret ballot is a revered principle of American democracy,” Marks said in a statement. “No one, most particularly government officials, should have access to information that can connect ballots with voters.”

The lawsuit stems from a request Marks made after an unsuccessful run for mayor in Aspen in 2009. The candidate requested to review images of ballots that were cast at the time. Her request was denied over concerns that the ballots could be traced to individual voters, which alerted Marks to the issue. She sued and won on the appellate level. Aspen has appealed for review of the case by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the County Clerks Association is exploring the possibility of legislation that would exempt ballots for review under the Colorado Open Records Act. Just the idea does not sit well with Marks who believes limiting access to ballots restricts transparency. Instead, she believes a process should be established to maintain anonymity while keeping the ballots open to the public.

Gessler agrees that there should be ballot transparency, but he says finding the right balance is the struggle. He adds that he is not “driving the Open Records Act train,” but said he is willing to explore the issue.

“Ballots should be open, but we also have to maintain the anonymity of how people vote,” said Gessler. “We have to forge a good framework that respects both of those.”

Gessler, however, believes the lawsuit filed by Marks has “deficiencies,” including the fact that it’s been filed in U.S. District Court, noting that he believes the issue is a state case, not a federal one. He also does not believe that the anonymity of voter ballots is a significant problem.

“I don’t think anyone’s anonymity has ever been compromised, but if there’s evidence that there are real problems out there, I can guarantee that we will be taking action on that,” he said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com