Voter drives slam registration training

State's manual contradicts Colorado law

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The training manual produced by the Colorado secretary of state’s office for this year’s voter registration drives erroneously indicated that Social Security numbers would serve as adequate identification in all instances when would-be voters filled out voter registration forms.

The manual contradicts Colorado law, which states that a Social Security number will work as identification only if a potential registrant lacks better documentation in the form of a Colorado driver’s license or a Department of Revenue ID.

That point, however, is mentioned nowhere in the 12-page manual.

Instead, on page 6 of the manual, a big blue arrow pointing toward a voter registration form states: “Use of one of these forms of ID is REQUIRED: Drivers License, Dept of Revenue ID, or SSN.”

“The training the secretary of state provided was not accurate,” said Grace Lopez Ramirez, of Mi Familia Vota’s Civic Participation Project, which works to register Hispanic voters. “No county clerk notified us of the problem until the last few days before the registration deadline.”

Department of State spokesman Rich Coolidge said that although the manual itself might have been unclear, the overall training provided by the office to voter registration groups emphasized the rule about Social Security numbers.

“The visual [on the training manual for registration drivers] could be clearer — but the training in its entirety stresses the importance of correctly filling out the voter registration forms in accordance with state and federal laws,” he said.

According to several Colorado voter registration companies who held a press conference on Thursday in front of the secretary of state’s office, however, Department of State training was inaccurate in several ways. As a direct result, they say, nearly 6,500 Coloradans filled out registration forms improperly.

A slew of voting rights groups and about 30 voters affected by the policies called for the secretary of state’s office to allow all voters who improperly filled out the form to be reinstated to voter rolls because of the alleged training errors.

According to several sources, if the secretary of state’s office does not add affected would-be registrants to the rolls, they could bring suit as early as Monday, Oct. 20.

Steve Fenberg, of the voter registration group New Era Colorado, said his group and at least five others received training a year ago from Cesi Gomez, who oversees training for registration drives at the secretary of state’s office.

Following the training manual, Gomez improperly told the registrars that applicants could list either their Social Security numbers or their driver’s license numbers when registering, Fenberg said.

The situation was complicated further by a law implemented in December. The new law required voters who had neither a driver’s license nor a Department of Revenue ID to confirm that by checking a box on the registration form. Only those who checked the box would be able to substitute a Social Security number as ID — something that many of the nearly 6,500 disqualified voters apparently failed to do.

Fenberg said those disqualifications also are on Gomez’s head. The issue, Fenberg said, was that some voters have a driver’s license, but do not have it handy when approached by a voter-registration drive volunteer. Many of the 12,000 people registered by New Era Colorado, for instance, were college students who often didn’t carry driver’s licenses.

Fenberg said voter registration drive volunteers were inaccurately instructed by the secretary of state’s office to allow these voters to use a Social Security number on the form.

Fenberg said the drives also were instructed not to have those applicants check the box affirming that they lacked drivers’ licenses, since that would be untrue.

As a result of the contradiction, Fenberg said, many of the applicants who listed a Social Security number didn’t check the box, and therefore were disqualified.

As evidence, Fenberg produced the notes he had taken during training, which appear under the heading “don’t have with me” — referring, Fenberg says, to advice given by the secretary of state’s office on voters who say they don’t have their drivers’ licenses on them.

Coolidge, however, denied that registration drives received improper training.

“Our office has been very clear and consistent in training over 470 people this year. The staff thoroughly reviews the voter registration form and what is needed to complete the form. The law is also very clear,” Coolidge said.

Secretary of State Mike Coffman issued a statement to explain his unwillingness to bend that law.

“Voter confidence and protecting the integrity of the election are my top priorities as Secretary of State,” the statement said. “The training offered by my office is clear and consistent when addressing this particular issue….My office training stresses the importance of correctly filling out the voter registration forms.”

Coffman said more than 22,000 incomplete voter registration forms lack a signature, date of birth or other essential information. Of those, 6,449 fail to affirm the lack of a driver’s license. That total is likely to rise in the coming weeks as county clerks cull through remaining voter registration forms.

Coffman’s statement is consistent with previous Department of State policy. In mid-September, when county clerks began noticing the errors in large numbers and asked Coffman whether they could overlook the apparent technicality, his office directed them to enforce the rule.

If there is a lawsuit over the “check box” controversy, the voters’ legal argument was seemingly laid out in a letter sent to Coffman on Monday, Oct. 13, by a coalition of national and state voting rights groups. It asked Coffman to reinstate those voters to the rolls, because, the letter said, they were disqualified for a “paperwork formality.” The coalition, which included Colorado Common Cause, argued that the incomplete forms contain all the information needed to verify a voter’s eligibility.

Although the federal Help America Vote Act and Colorado law do create a hierarchy in terms of identification numbers, Common Cause argued, there is “no legal requirement for voters to check a box or even expressly indicate that they do not have state-issued identifying numbers.”

Federal law also does not require such a provision. In fact, federal voter registration forms are being accepted by the state — even though they don’t contain a “check box” on them to differentiate between Social Security and drivers’ license numbers.

Furthermore, the coalition of voting rights groups argues, the state law contradicts federal law, which says that a voter cannot be stricken from the rolls if an “error or omission is not material in determining whether such individual is qualified under state law to vote in such an election.”

Nationwide, the addition of new voters to the rolls is generally viewed as favoring Democrats, and ensuring the integrity of new registrations is generally viewed as a Republican priority.

And although that holds true here and in other parts of the country, the Colorado controversy is somewhat different.

Elsewhere, Republicans — including the campaign of GOP presidential nominee John McCain — have decried the actions of such voter registration groups as ACORN, which, they say, are committing widespread voter registration fraud.

Thus far in Colorado, however, ACORN has not turned in faulty voter registration forms in any significant quantity, according to county clerks and the secretary of state’s office, so controversy has largely centered on the possible wrongful exclusion of some voters from the rolls.

Matt Farrauto, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, said Democrats believe the voters should be put back on the rolls now — particularly in light of a letter given to county clerks several weeks ago by the secretary of state’s office and then sent to 4,046 of the registrants in question. The letter stated — incorrectly — that recipients had to correct their registration errors by Oct. 6. The secretary of state’s office has since sent out a letter with the correct information.

Although registration errors can be corrected up to Election Day, Farrauto, the Colorado Democratic Party spokesman, said the affected voters shouldn’t be made to jump through anymore hoops.

“There seems to be a demonstrated Republican tendency of creating obstacles to voting,” he said.

The counties are now working to inform voters of the correct information — though some don’t have to correct the record. Denver County Elections Director Mike Scarpello said in an interview last Tuesday that Denver had not used the form letter provided by the secretary of state’s office to county clerks that incorrectly stated all information had to be corrected by Oct. 6, and instead sent a letter correctly stating that the information could be changed up to Election Day.

Scarpello said that out of some 2,000 people who had incorrectly filled out the form in Denver County, some 1,000 had corrected the mistake. However, Denver still had 5,800 voter registration forms to process as of last Monday — so it’s more than likely that many new problematic applications will be identified.

Scarpello said Denver Elections is talking with the secretary of state’s office to find a way for voters who face this issue to be registered into the SCORE statewide voter on Election Day and then be placed into the Denver poll books. If that doesn’t occur, Scarpello said, such voters could, as a last resort, use a provisional ballot and have their registration status checked after they cast their votes.

Under current rules, registrants who didn’t check the box are being left out of the SCORE system, even if they provided enough information for county clerks to verify their identities.

At the press conference Thursday, a letter sent by Denver Elections to a voter named Adrian Herrera was provided to reporters. Dated Oct. 8., it told Herrera that he was not registered and clearly explained that a Social Security number could only be used if the voters did not have a driver’s license or Department of Revenue ID number.

Herrera said he understands the distinction now. Still, he said, he fears for himself and other voters that it could be too little, too late.

“Now, I have to vote on Election Day,” said Herrera, who said he had been waiting eagerly for his mail ballot. “This is going to be difficult for me because of my job.”