By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado is a critical swing state in the presidential election, and the battle for votes between the Democratic and Republican parties is escalating here.
And, as voter registration drives escalate, cries of “foul play” are being heard from both major political parties.
Both state parties held press conferences Sept. 24 alleging irregularities in voter registration in Colorado.
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak joins state Sen. John Morse and activists to counter El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink’s assertion of fraudulent voter registrations in Colorado Springs.
The issue of voter fraud erupted Tuesday, Sept. 23, when El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink said a dozen questionable voter registrations were forwarded to the District Attorney’s office for investigation.
One registration spelled a man’s first name correctly on one line and incorrectly on another line. Others contained street addresses that don’t exist and drivers’ license numbers that probably were issued by other states.
In Denver, state GOP Chair Dick Wadhams said, “Any attempt at committing voter fraud with the intent to corrupt an election or disenfranchise voters is reprehensible. I am happy to see that these allegations are being taken seriously by El Paso County election officials and by the district attorney, and we are hopeful that any future attempts to commit voter fraud will be dissuaded.”
In Colorado Springs, state Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak held a news conference and blasted Balink’s office for issuing a document to Colorado College that stated students who are dependents of parents who live out of state are ineligible to register and vote in Colorado.
“It’s false, and wrongly dissuades college students from registering to vote in Colorado,” said Waak.
Fraud, vote suppression
charged in Colorado Springs
“In a competitive presidential election like this year — where people want to get Obama elected — we’re seeing voter registration fraud,” said Ryan Call, attorney for the Colorado Republican Party. “Any attempt at committing voter fraud with the intent to corrupt an election or disenfranchise voters is reprehensible.”
Colorado Democratic Party legal counsel Martha Tierney countered, “The situation in El Paso County — 12 suspicious registrations — hardly qualifies as widespread voter registration fraud.”
Considering the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, which oversees elections, has processed more than 21,000 new voter registrations in recent months, do 12 potentially human errors constitute a crisis?
“One is too many,” retorted Balink, adding that the problem is much bigger on a national scale.
Balink is concerned that private organizations are submitting registration forms with fraudulent information in an effort to perpetrate the old scam of adding names culled from obituaries, birth certificates and falsified addresses to voting records. In addition, there’s a concern about homeless people being registered to vote at shelters and city parks.
Eligibility of ‘progressive’
Colorado College students questioned
Balink culled a lot of information from John Fund’s bestseller Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy, which analyzes voter fraud including the chad-riddled 2000 Florida election that delivered George Bush over Al Gore. Balink highly recommends the read. Democrats might have a different take.
The day after Balink’s “voter fraud” warning, state Democratic Party Chair Waak and Sen. John Morris, D-Fountain, headed a press conference to denounce Balink’s office for discouraging students from registering to vote at Colorado College and for closing three of six sites for early voting in El Paso County.
“I’m disappointed,” said Morse of the Colorado College incident and closure of early voting sites, including one in Fountain. “Our county clerk is focused on making sure people can’t vote… Please do the job that you were sworn to do.”
That, Morse said, is to encourage voter registration and ensure opportunities to vote.
The Democrats felt that it was more than coincidence that Colorado College students, who tend to be more “progressive,” received a document from the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder’s office that told them they might not be eligible to register to vote in Colorado Springs.
Liz Olson, who oversees elections at the El Paso County office, said she sent voter registration information to Colorado College in March. The document, she said, was current, but misinterpreted Colorado statutes governing voter eligibility.
A county attorney discovered the mistake late in the afternoon on the day before Democrats convened a protest press conference on the lawn of Colorado College.
Balink retracted the document’s statement shortly before the Democratic Party’s press conference that accused him of illegally barring college students from registering to vote.
“Previously, my office mistakenly published information that was incorrect,” stated Balink. “…I want to be very clear that students who qualify on residency standards under applicable registration law, including those whose out-of-state parents claim them as dependents, are eligible and encouraged to register to vote in El Paso County.”
Regardless of whether a student is claimed as a “dependent” by their parents on tax filings in another state, Colorado law defines an eligible voter as a citizen of the United States, at least 18 years old, and having lived in the state for 30 days prior to the election.
Olson said the voter registration information had been sent to Colorado College in response to a request, and had not gone to other local colleges considered more politically conservative, including the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Leslie Weddell, a Colorado College spokesperson, disputed Olson’s account.
“We did not solicit the information,” she said. “They sent it to us. This is blown out of context. There’s a huge gap in communication.”
There’s little time to correct the misinformation before the Oct. 6 voter registration deadline.
Democrat Cindy Kulp recalled problems in the 2004 presidential election when Colorado College students and neighbors shuffled for hours in a line that wrapped around the block outside the First Presbyterian Church on Tejon Street. Students who apparently didn’t have valid IDs caused the delay.
The polling place has since been moved to the Colorado College campus.
According to Balink, the voting process would be nearly airtight with a better system — preferably a national database to prevent voter fraud and ensure U.S. citizenship.
Olson said the voter registrations are checked for addresses and Colorado driver’s license numbers through the Colorado Department of Revenue — however, there is no system to check criminal histories through the Colorado Department of Corrections. Convicted felons lose voting privileges.
In addition, she said students might receive mail ballots from their home states outside of Colorado and also register to vote in El Paso County. Currently, proof of ID can be a passport with no address or a utility, phone or cable bill.
“It’s a very slim chance that we would catch a dual registration, particularly state to state. It’s a real problem,” said Olson.
The controversy surrounding the eligibility of out-of-state college students to vote in presidential elections has precedent. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that students have the right to register to vote at their college addresses. In 2004, however, two students at William and Mary filed a federal lawsuit after they were denied the ability to register in Virginia.
The issue also recently arose at Virginia Tech University, when the Montgomery County registrar of elections issued two news releases incorrectly suggesting that students who registered to vote at their colleges might lose their right to be claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns or could lose scholarships or car and health insurance.
Doug Chapin, director of ElectionLine.org, a Washington D.C. based group that studies national election trends said, “In some ways, it’s less a ‘red and blue’ issue than it is a town and gown issue.”
Chapin said the issue in other states sometimes is not as cut and dry as whether voters have lived in a state for 30 days, and often centers on whether voters can show they intend to remain in the state.
“In most states, you can’t just live somewhere long enough and then cast your ballot,” he said. “There’s got to be intent to remain. If there’s a challenge, then a voter has to prove that they intend to remain and that they’re properly domesticated. On neither side is it absolutely allowed, or absolutely not allowed.”
Chapin noted that similar issues could arise for other reasons besides a college student’s decision to register in a new state. In 2006, Hurricane Katrina took many voters out of their New Orleans residencies, but voters still wanted to cast votes there.
The issue this year is home foreclosures. A couple weeks ago, the Obama campaign filed a lawsuit to limit the ability of Republicans to challenge the eligibility of voters in Michigan. That was after a Republican county chairman in the state said the party would challenge the voting status of homeowners who had faced foreclosure, a strategy later denied by state party officials.
The issue of possible vote suppression involving address changes may be more prominent this year than ever, Chapin said, especially in regard to college students.
“Certainly, the Obama campaign is targeting a number of college campuses and younger voters,” he said. “And this issue is usually brought into sharpest relief when you have issues about out-of-state students.”
Concerns about registration
drives, homeless voters
Another concern brought forth by Republicans last week was over the private organizations that solicit voter registrations.
Liz Olson, the El Paso County elections director, said the “12 problematic registrations we found were all from Community Voters Project,” a private signature gathering group.
“We’re the ones who brought them to the county’s attention,” responded Meghan McAndrews of Community Voters Project. “They didn’t look kosher.”
McAndrews said the organization, whose stated goal is to register 500,000 Hispanic and African-American voters in swing states before the election, has delivered 12,820 voter registrations to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder over the past four months.
“We work closely with the county, and we want to stay on good terms,” said McAndrews, adding that the group had consulted Olson about questionable processes.
Call said there’s a veil of suspicion when such groups as the Community Voters Project, Work for Progress and Progressive Future share the same Denver address.
“They’re in the push to register Democrats,” said Call, and that raises questions about fairness in turning in Republican-affiliated registration forms.
Call cited a recent Progressive Future ad in the Denver Post that read: “Campaign Jobs to help elect BARACK OBAMA — No fundraising required and guaranteed hourly wage. Promote clean energy, work to end the war, ensure health care for all Americans! Work with great people!”
Such charges over voter fraud have a history. In 2004, the former head of the Arizona GOP and Arizona Christian Coalition formed Voter Outreach, Inc. that turned in Republican voter registration forms, but allegedly destroyed others affiliated as Democrats in Oregon and Nevada.
In 2006, more liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was charged with filing false voter registrations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Colorado. This month, ACORN is under investigation in New Mexico and Wisconsin for the same problem.
Most recently, GOP charges have centered on efforts by these private groups to register homeless voters. Whether there’s a legitimate concern there about voter fraud, an effort to depress turnout in a population that will likely go Democratic, or simply a bogeyman meant to distract, is the question.
“Without a nationwide database, there’s not a way to check voter registrations,” said Call. “A lot of things fall through the cracks.”
“They’re entitled to vote,” responded McAndrews. “We were told to put down the address where they usually are — a homeless shelter or Acacia Park, wherever they live.”
The way the state law is written, retorted Call, “a place of residence can be a state park which presumably has mail delivery. It wasn’t intended to include a city park.”
Call cited the results of an outside study commissioned by the Republican Party looking at large pockets of voters housed in single locations. The study, culled from data at the secretary of state’s office, showed 485 addresses with questionable numbers of voting registrants around the state, Call said, ranging anywhere from 10 voters to 1,262 voters.
Those 1,262 voters are registered at the St. Francis homeless shelter at 2323 Curtis Street in Denver, the study found. Call said the Republican Party was investigating whether groups such as the Colorado Public Interest Research Group were deliberately targeting homeless voters as a means to commit voter fraud. Call also said the GOP may attempt to monitor mail ballots sent to homeless shelters and make homeless voters show their IDs before they send in their ballots.
Whether homeless voters are being targeted or not by private groups, signing up homeless voters is completely legal, said Nancy Reubert, a spokeswoman for the Denver County Clerk and Recorder’s office.
Reubert said that although homeless voters are not required to show identification when registered by a voter registration company, those voters are required to send in a photocopy of identification if they send in a mail-in ballot.
The executive director of the St. Francis homeless shelter, Tom Luehrs, said anyone picking up a mail ballot at the shelter has to show a government issued ID — a more stringent standard, in fact, than the state of Colorado currently employs at polling locations. In addition, he said, any mail ballot not picked up is sent back to the post office.
“We do have checks and balances in place. We’re very careful about giving out the mail,” he said. “It’s kind of ridiculous to pick on a population that’s already getting picked on for other things.”
Luehrs said there had been a voter registration drive at the shelter during the Democratic National Convention conducted by a non-partisan group called the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless — not one of the left-leaning companies cited by Republicans.
“And believe it or not,” Luehrs added, “there are people who are homeless who aren’t Democrats.”