Overhauling the Vote

Colorado bill raises possibility of voter fraud and intimidation, critics say

Voting booths / AP
May 2, 2013

Colorado’s Democratic-controlled state legislature is ramming through an election bill that critics say will open the door to voter fraud and intimidation.

The "Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act" is expected to pass the legislature this week. Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, as well as the governor’s mansion, meaning the bill could pass without a single Republican vote.

The bill is under consideration amid accusations that Republicans in other states have tried to suppress the vote by passing laws that require some form of identification in order to vote.

The Colorado law would make mail-in ballots mandatory while eliminating local polling places and allowing people to vote on the same day they register.

Critics of the bill say that these changes could lead to fraud and voter intimidation.

"I want our elections to be easy to vote and tough to cheat, and this ruins that balance," said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who has been an outspoken opponent of the bill.

Gessler said the two main provisions of the bill are "a recipe for fraud" and have both been proven problematic. Wisconsin and Minnesota both have same day registration, and they have both seen large problems with fraud, Gessler said.

Gessler noted a 2004 Milwaukee police report that singled out the same-day registration system as allowing felons to vote illegally and others to vote twice. The 2004 election was rife with problems and inconsistencies that caused there to be more votes than voters in Milwaukee, according to the report.

The bill also strips voters of "the protection of a private voting booth," Gessler said, which opens up voters to the possibility of intimidation.

Some Colorado voters have already been subject to voter intimidation using mail-in ballots, said Marilyn Marks, who heads the voter watchdog group Citizen Center and has lobbied against the pending bill.

Citizen Center launched a lawsuit alleging a March recall election in Center, Colo., which partially used mail-in ballots, was rife with corruption and voter intimidation. The suit said individuals pressured voters in low income and Hispanic areas to vote for certain individuals by giving them pre-filled ballots dropping off their ballots at the polling place.

These individuals allegedly used children’s participation in the federal education program Head Start as leverage over parents, Marks said. One individual who initially said he had been intimidated will not testify now out of fear of reprisal, she said.

Marks said the mail-in ballots strongly supported the recall while those who voted in a traditional polling location did not.

Gessler, who as secretary of state is in charge of implementing the state’s election laws, said the proposed timeline for implementing the laws is much too short.

The bill requires technology the state does not have and allows only three-and-a-half months to implement the new requirements, Gessler said. The Denver Post, which Gessler said leans left, editorialized in agreement with Gessler’s point, arguing that the bill rushes the reforms.

The bill would overturn a 2002 popular referendum in which the people rejected both of the reforms that the bill would create, said Colorado Voter Group’s Al Kolwicz.

Colorado voters rejected the proposals by a 20-point margin, Kolwicz said. Only one county out of 64 voted to support them.

Marks and Gessler noted that a quarter to a third of voters still choose to vote in traditional polling places despite already being offered the opportunity to vote with a mail-in ballot.

State Sen. Angela Giron, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate and who is facing a recall election, argued before the bill was introduced on April 10 that the bill would increase access to the ballot.

Neither the bill’s primary sponsors—Giron in the Senate and Majority Leader Dickey Hullinghorst and Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon in the House—nor the Colorado Democratic Party returned requests for comment.

Colorado has the third-highest turnout in the country, behind only Minnesota and Wisconsin. Turnout in 2012 was over 70 percent and over 12 points higher than the national average.

"Colorado actually makes it really easy for people to vote, and the proof is in the number," Gessler said.

Marks said the bill reduces the number of physical polling places, in many counties to one only, by replacing them with voting centers where people can turn in their ballots or vote in person if they say they never received a mail-in ballot or lost the one that was sent to them. The vast size of many Colorado counties would make it nearly impossible for some people who live in remote areas to vote in person.

"There is no problem to be solved by this, and instead it screws things up," Gessler said.

Two other states, Oregon and Washington, have moved to a similar ballot system. Their turnouts in the 2012 elections were lower than Colorado’s, although the system’s administrators had nothing but praise for the all-mail system.

"It solves virtually every problem that people talk about," said Tony Green, communications director for the Oregon Secretary of State.

Oregon has had 13 successfully prosecuted cases of voter fraud since implementing the all-mail system around 2000, and Green said not all of them could be attributed to the mail-in system. Voter intimidation has not been reported as a problem, Green said. He did concede that lines at vote centers occasionally occur when people wait until the last minute to get their ballot.

Washington State officials also praised their mail-in system.

"What we’ve seen is that turnout increases, voters have more access to the system," said Lori Augino, director of elections for Washington State. Augino was not aware of any voter intimidation or fraud in Washington State.

The administrators of elections in Colorado are also big proponents of the mail-in system and are pushing hard for the bill.

"The bill was basically engineered by an organization called the Colorado County Clerks Association, what we consider to be a secret association," Kolwicz said.

"The clerks wanted total control of the elections," Marks said.

The bill reduces the number of election observers from the parties, giving the clerks more autonomy over the election process, she said. The clerks association did not return a request for comment.

Gessler said his office was excluded from the drafting process, despite the fact that he would be implementing the bill. Republican lawmakers were also excluded, said Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call.

Call said the bill was introduced very late in the legislative system and is now being rammed through the legislature. Marks said the bill has major problems, but the legislature will not fix them in their haste.

"They are in such a hurry to pass it that they won’t stop to straighten it out," she said.

Call expressed frustration on Tuesday that helpful amendments to improve the bill were "getting shut out." The bill passed a second procedural vote in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon with only minor technical amendments to fix drafting errors, a GOP spokesman confirmed.

The bill must pass one more vote in the Senate before the house will vote on the amended version. It will then be sent to the governor’s desk.

Call accused Democrats of "wanting to lock in their political advantages by changing the rules of the game." Democrats won control of the Colorado house in the November 2012 election; they already controlled the senate and governor’s mansion before the election.

Observers are unsure if Gov. John Hickenlooper will sign the bill.

Gessler said Hickenlooper ran a markedly moderate campaign and has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.

"This bill is the exact opposite of what he said he’s about," Gessler said.

He expressed hope that Hickenlooper would veto it.

Hickenlooper’s office did not return multiple requests for comment.