Gessler gets earful on listening tour

Arapahoe County GOP chair cites blackjack-wielding volunteer and ‘hideous’ scene in Mission Viejo
The Colorado Statesman

Secretary of State Scott Gessler got an earful this week at the first stops on his self-described “listening tour” designed to solicit comments from the public about the conduct of the 2012 election.

Poll watchers, canvass board members, party officials and regular citizens lined up to air their grievances on Wednesday in Boulder and Centennial, complaining about everything from faulty polling lists and ham-handed county clerks to Gessler’s own actions chasing suspected non-citizens on the voter rolls while, some claimed, creating unnecessary hurdles for residents to register and vote.

In Centennial, a slew of Arapahoe County Republicans — including the chair of the county party and a county commissioner — blamed inadequately trained election judges and aggressive Democrats for creating a circus-like atmosphere at over-crowded vote centers filled with intimidation and what some described as rampant voter fraud.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler tells a crowd at the Boulder Public Library that he thinks the 2012 election went well but that “we can improve substantially” at the kickoff of a listening tour on Dec. 5 to solicit feedback about how the election was conducted. Communications director Richard Coolidge takes notes and Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert listen.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“My view on this election is, we had, over-all, and compared with other states, a really good election. I think we had a very good election over-all,” Gessler told the people who showed in Boulder at the first stop on the tour. “That doesn’t mean we can’t improve, and I think we can improve substantially.”

The tour continued with stops in Colorado Springs and Pueblo on Thursday, after press time. Next week, metro area residents will have the chance to bend Gessler’s ear from 1 3 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the secretary of state’s downtown office. Gessler said that he plans to add similar events in additional Front Range Counties, on the Western Slope and on the Eastern Plains next month.

Retired engineer Jim August of Longmont said he was “shocked” at what he observed working as an election watcher this year.

“Watching the ballot processing is like watching sausage being made. Once you’ve watched it, you have a hard time partaking of it in the future,” he said. After spending 10 days observing the process, he said, nearly ever aspect of validating and counting ballots, from ballot security, mail ballot processing to signature verification, was fraught with “potential fraud”, abetted by constantly malfunctioning electronic devices.

“My major concern is not letting illegitimate ballots through the system,” August said. “There is no major effort to prevent illegitimate ballots from being processed.”

Dan Gould, the chair of Boulder County Democratic Party, had a different take. “Given the extremely low probability of voter impersonation,” he said, and what he described as a reasonable assumption “that voters want to vote and want to comply with the law,” he doesn’t think Boulder needs to change how it verifies ballots. Instead, he said, the county should work toward an atmosphere that “encourages voting, not discourages voting.”

Boulder resident Norma Moore, who described herself as “a very active citizen, not on any board,” called it “a pretty terrible experience” to try to register voters.

“What I experienced and was, the assumption was that we were trying to commit some kind of fraud and every measure was made to keep us from doing something terrible,” she lamented, telling Gessler that the ordeal left her feeling “not supported, disrespected, and, much as I like you personally, wanting to elect a different secretary of state.”

Gessler responded that the rules governing voter registration predate his time in office but agreed that there are “a lot of areas where voter registration drive guidance can be improved” and suggested that complaints be submitted in writing to his office.

Longmont resident Bob Norris, who helped steer registration drives for Latino advocacy organization El Comite, said the whole process made it difficult for new voters.

“One thing that’s disturbed me most,” he said, “is some of these efforts to require certain types of documentation impact negatively minorities, elderly and the poor. The net result of all these things is this part of the population that’s growing, who’ve been working very hard to become citizens, are being discouraged.”

Carrie Jackson, an employee of the New Era Colorado youth-outreach organization, said that inconsistent early voting locations and hours created a barrier. “We would just like to see it made a little bit easier for voters,” she said. Her New Era colleague, Molly Fitzpatrick, urged Gessler to shift his focus from sending letters to suspected non-citizens, which she said left legitimate voters feeling “confused and intimidated.” Instead, she said, Gessler should fix problems with his office’s websites, which were difficult to access on the deadline for voter registration and on Election Day.

Louisa Young, the president of the Boulder County League of Women Voters, seconded the complaint about Gessler’s efforts to root out non-citizen voters.

“We have serious concerns about your aggressive attitude toward suspected non-citizens,” she said. “We believe that has a chilling effect on people who have the right to vote.”

Much of the discussion in Boulder, however, centered on controversy over the county’s canvass board and its decision to reject the final vote count reported by the clerk’s office.

The canvass board — composed of the county clerk and two members from each of the state’s major political parties, this year including representatives of the American Constitution Party in addition to Democrats and Republicans — refused to certify the election results last month. All four of the American Constitution Party and Republican canvass board members voted against certification, charging that thousands of mail ballots were counted without adequate signature verification and that thousands of provisional ballots were either accepted or rejected without sufficient review. The board’s two Democrats and County Clerk Hillary Hall voted to certify the results and submitted them to Gessler, who said he will decide this week whether to accept them.

Ralph Shnelvar of the American Constitution Party blasted the way the dissenting canvass board members had been treated by the election establishment, singling out Hall for sharp criticism.

“How am I supposed to recruit canvass board members to put in months of work for virtually no pay only to be insulted by the county clerk by calling the careful work they did a ‘stunt’?” He asked Gessler to side with the canvass board’s majority and decline to accept the results.

Canvass board member James Remmert, who changed his registration from Libertarian in order to fill one of the American Constitution Party’s seats on the board, said his 9-year-old granddaughter could do the job if all that was required was adding up the results. “We concluded it was our job to go beneath the numbers,” he said.

But provisional ballot board member Susan Boucher disagreed, praising Hall’s staff and adding that she was “baffled” by the accusations of impropriety.

Democratic canvass board member Paul Geissler said that complaints about inadequate signature verification were unfounded, noting that the staff was trained to detect forgeries by police detectives. “Unfortunately, there was a coordinated effort to discredit the election,” he said.

Later on Wednesday in Arapahoe County, GOP precinct leader Pam Cirbo charged that Democrats might have stolen the election by taking advantage of voters whose names linger on the rolls long after they’ve moved away or become incapacitated.

Noting that she found 15 voters registered at the address of a “memory care center,” she said, “We do know about voter harvesting. One party does it so much better.” After the rambunctious crowd finished applauding her observation, she added, “I see a real gap in our process for fraud.”

But it was the large vote centers in the county that drew the most criticism from Republicans at the Centennial event.

“I know when I see something that is not right,” said Mary Wenke, who noted that she’s been watching the polls since 1968. Saying that the chaotic vote centers “provided the perfect opportunity for, let us say, mischief or monkey business,” she recounted stories of poll watchers being obstructed and intimidated and described having to stack trash cans on a chair and brandish her cane in order to keep a Democratic lawyer from interfering with county workers.

“These huge election centers are a disaster,” she said. “I highly urge we go back to the smaller system where people vote in the area where they live.”

Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman questioned whether it was appropriate for high-ranking Democrats — including Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — to visit with voters while they waited in long lines or whether that constituted electioneering, which is forbidden within 100 feet of polling places.

Gessler responded that Hickenlooper and Bennet “have all the rights to speak to individuals but if they were electioneering, that would be in violation of the law,” adding that he wasn’t concerned that laws had been broken when the Democrats visited the vote centers.

Nikki Mata, a Centennial poll watcher, called the vote centers in the county “a nightmare” and said that election workers and others trying to keep things orderly had been “totally overwhelmed” on Election Day.

“One thing that needs to be addressed are these advocacy groups that showed up at our voter centers,” she said. “These advocacy groups showed up and in most cases found their way into the polling places and in most cases were talking to people standing in line.” She questioned whether nominally nonpartisan groups should be able to influence voters by passing out pizza, distributing water to voters waiting in line or giving high fives to voters.

Republican precinct leader Rick Schecter, who worked as a poll watcher at the Smoky Hill Library, compared his frustration on Election Day to when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam.

“You can complain all you want but won’t do any good,” he said. “The deliberate strategy was to overwhelm the citizen. Just read Saul Alinsky. They won, in more ways than one, and we’re living with the consequences.”

Arapahoe County Republican Party chair Joy Hoffman charged that there was voter intimidation at several locations in Aurora, including a blackjack-wielding volunteer and a “hideous” scene in Mission Viejo.

“My concern is that people who wanted to vote and wanted to exercise their franchise as U.S. citizens did not get that chance because they either saw the lines or they saw the behavior and they were scared off,” she said.

Wes Horn said he was shocked at what he witnessed. “I don’t think there was any question there was a lot of fraud,” he said, adding that he felt like he was “in Venezuela.”

The day before, Public Policy Polling released a survey that showed 49 percent of Republicans nationwide believe that ACORN stole the election for Obama, despite the fact that the organization hasn’t existed for years.

State Democratic Party spokesman Matt Inzeo told The Colorado Statesman that Arapahoe County Republicans had likely been confused by the sight of enthusiastic voters and misinterpreted what was going on.

“We’re proud of all the work our candidates and campaigns put into a record-breaking election turnout, and we’re certainly pleased to have delivered victories in so many key races,” he said.

After the Centennial meeting concluded, Gessler said he was happy with the first day of his listening tour.

“It’s all good for us to get information and sort through it and analyze it and look at ways to improve the elections. Obviously, if there’s been violations of the law, we can follow up on that. What I do intend to do is follow up on all the comments we get, to look at them closely and sort through them, and, if necessary, we may follow up on specific instances,” he said.

Saying that he’d heard some new complaints, he stressed that his intention was to learn “what went right, what went wrong,” and emphasized that this was the first time a secretary of state had ventured into communities to solicit feedback on an election.

“So what I’m hoping to do is unearth more specific information, more comments than we ever have before, so we can take that, work with the clerks and recorders, work with different groups, find ways to make our 2014 election better than 2012. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com