SoS Gessler miffed at ‘game-playing’ by Dems

The Colorado Statesman

A crucial bill to conservative Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s elections reform agenda has been “hijacked” by Democrats, according to Republican critics, all in the name of voters who become inactive simply because they did not vote in the previous even-year general election. Democrats say those voters should be given the opportunity to return a mail ballot, and so they have amended a bill originally pushed by Gessler in a game of “political chess” that has Republicans seeing red.

As delegates and politicos line up at both the Colorado Republican and Democratic state assemblies and conventions this weekend, talk of inactive voters and House Bill 1267 is sure to pop up. After all, Republicans are accusing Democrats of addressing the inactive voter issue simply to pad the voter rolls in favor of President Barack Obama.

Republicans believe that it would benefit Democrats in the upcoming presidential election to give certain inactive voters the right to a mail-in ballot, noting that the majority of the estimated 135,000 inactive voters who failed to vote in the last even-year election are Democrats or unaffiliated voters — both obviously critical to Obama’s re-election.

“I strongly suspect that could be what’s behind it,” Gessler said of the Democrats’ effort.

At issue with HB 1267 is an amendment by Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, which would address the issue of inactive voters who fail to vote. Gessler wants to prevent county clerks from mailing ballots to voters who did not vote in the 2010 general election and who failed to respond to two postcard notifications informing the voters of their inactivity. Colorado voters who miss an even-year general election are labeled “inactive/failed to vote,” and Gessler believes county clerks should stop mailing those voters ballots in an effort to lower operating costs. He says this is how it’s been done for 17 years, without any issues.

“The Democrats are being very partisan in their efforts to push this through and they’re unfortunately willing to sacrifice very bipartisan bills to do that,” said Gessler. “It’s unfortunate when you see politics like this, this sort of last minute stuff before a general election ruin a lot of hard work to build bipartisan support for good bills that really would help the taxpayers of Colorado.”

Inactive and active voters are treated the same at polling locations, so the issue has not flared up much in the previous 17 years. But with the increased use of mail ballots, the issue has become more relative. State law only requires mail ballots to be sent to “each active registered elector,” so Gessler argues that inactive voters shouldn’t receive mail ballots. He says the inactive voters can still vote at early polling sites, on Election Day and can still request a mail ballot.

But clerks in Denver and Pueblo fought back and argued that they should be mailing ballots to voters whose status is inactive/failed to vote. Their actions, however, resulted in a lawsuit by Gessler’s office filed last September. A final ruling by the Denver District Court has not been made.

Addressing the issue through legislation

In the meantime, lawmakers have attempted to address the issue through legislation. Earlier this session, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, introduced Senate Bill 109, which would have declared those inactive voters as being active voters. SB 109 died on March 28 in the House Local Government Committee on a 6-5 Republican party-line vote, despite it having bipartisan sponsorship.

But last week Democrats hatched the idea of amending HB 1267 to include the inactive voter language that was rejected in SB 109. The move is being called a game of “political chess” because of how the legislative process unfolded.

The Senate sponsor of HB 1267, Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, got word that Democrats were going to amend his bill, and so he asked the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee last Monday to kill his own legislation, which it did by a unanimous vote. But then the following Wednesday, Boyd offered a motion to resurrect and reconsider HB 1267, a move the committee backed on a 3-2 Democratic party-line vote. That set up a fight between Republicans and Democrats that played out on Monday when the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee considered HB 1267.

Boyd and fellow Democrats argued that the amendment sought only to “protect voters’ right to vote.” The committee backed the amendment and sent HB 1267 to appropriations on a vote of 3-2.

“I just don’t believe that missing an election should prevent a voter from being able to vote in an election,” she said.

The move sparked incredulous speculation by Grantham, who called the amendment and move by Democrats a game of partisan politics.

“When it completely changes the intent of the bill, and when it changes the bill over to one that has already been opposed by myself personally and by the majority of Republicans who were on the House committee, you know, that is a tactic in which they are trying to at least subvert my intent on my bill,” lamented Grantham, who said Democrats should have honored his request to kill his own bill and run a late bill to address the issue, as is the Senate Democrats’ right being the majority party in the Senate.

But Boyd told The Colorado Statesman following the vote that a late bill would have cost taxpayers more money, and argued that the move was not political gamesmanship, but a practical way to push an issue that Democrats find very important.

“I’m sorry that people are seeing it as being a partisan issue because it really isn’t,” she said. “I think we all believe in the same thing; I think we all believe that people ought to be able to exercise their right and their responsibility to vote, and we need to be careful that we don’t get in the way of that.”

Assuming HB 1267 makes its way out of appropriations to the full Democratic-controlled Senate, the amended measure is likely to be passed and sent back to the House for consideration. The measure would go straight back to the House floor for debate, skipping the committee process.

It is here that Coram’s vote would become so critical. Having co-sponsored SB 109 with Johnston — the original language for the Democrats’ amended HB 1267 — it is entirely possible that Coram would vote in favor of the amended HB 1267. Coram is also the original sponsor of HB 1267 in the first place. With Republicans controlling the House by only one vote, Coram’s support could send the bill to the governor for his signature.

He told The Statesman on Monday that he is still undecided on what to do, but he said he would not back down in the face of pressure from his own party.

“I’m pretty old; I pretty well vote for the folks in my district,” he joked, adding seriously that his district faces an unemployment rate of 20 percent and that many voters have temporarily taken jobs in the Dakotas, which has caused some to miss the Colorado election in 2010, thus making them inactive.

“I think they carry a legitimate vote that should count,” Coram said of his constituents. He said he has not yet received any pressure from House Republican leadership on the issue, nor from the secretary of state’s office. Gessler said on Tuesday that he had not yet reached out to Coram over the amended HB 1267.

For Gessler, the issue is both professional and personal, as HB 1267 had been one of the most important bills he has been pushing as part of a package of proposals to bring elections reform.

The original intent of HB 1267 was to cover 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. The measure 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.

Democrats were not thrilled with the provision that would shrink the window for early voting centers to stay open, but the amended HB 1267 seems to accomplish one of their biggest goals concerning the inactive voters. Gessler says given the amended version, he can no longer support the bill.

“At the price Colorado’s paying with the loss of voter integrity, that’s a very steep one; it’s very inappropriate,” he said.

Recall effort and lawsuits

On a personal level, Gessler is forced to acknowledge the attack by Democrats as being one of many he has experienced recently. Democrats have even gone as far as to examine ways to recall the controversial secretary of state, and they have launched an online petition drive through Facebook to that effect. But Gessler says he’s taking it all in stride.

“I apologize if their feelings are hurt so easily,” he quipped, promising that his feelings don’t get hurt.

The secretary is also now defending himself against a lawsuit filed last week seeking to overturn rule-making by the secretary’s office that addressed campaign finance regulations in Colorado. The most controversial rule would effectively repeal Colorado’s reporting requirement for political groups known as 527s. Colorado Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch filed the lawsuit.

The two groups filed a similar lawsuit in 2011, which resulted in a ruling rejecting Gessler’s attempt to reform the state’s disclosure laws. The groups argue that the secretary of state does not have the authority to change state law.

“Coloradans fought for the right to know who is spending money to influence their votes,” said Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “As we approach an election expected to have record spending, Secretary Gessler’s rules rewrite will leave Coloradans in the dark.”

But Gessler said he was unsurprised by the lawsuit, noting “usual groups” as opponents.

“They care about keeping the deck stacked in their favor,” argued Gessler. “They’ve got the attorneys, they’ve got the CPAs, and they’re the ones benefiting.”

Gessler is also defending himself against a federal lawsuit filed in February that aims to address revealing to government officials the identities of voters. The federal lawsuit was filed by the Citizen Center, an Aspen-based advocacy organization for greater government transparency and accountability. The suit argued that Gessler’s office is ignoring complaints over practices that can reveal the identity of voters on what are supposed to be anonymous ballots.

Some of agenda moves forward

But Gessler isn’t focused solely on the negatives. He points to at least eight pieces of legislation that are all part of his reform agenda for the year that have been given favorable support at the Legislature. The bills run the gamut, from modifying gift disclosure rules, to posting election night returns online.

Other bills concerning allowing notaries public to register online; cleanups to non-controversial but technical elections laws; modifications to initiative title board procedures; making it easier for military personnel to vote; and enhancing the secretary of state’s online filing system have also all been making positive progress, or been signed by the governor.

Gessler is still a bit miffed over House Bill 1111, which would have required photo identification to vote. A Democratic-controlled Senate committee killed the bill on April 4. But he says overall, his agenda has moved forward the way he wanted it to.

“I know the Democrats get upset about what they perceive as inflammatory comments, even though they’re just basic, straightforward policies — the Democrats are entrenched in their interests, that’s why they’re upset,” said Gessler. “But if you look at our agenda, this is the way to do it right. We’re building a bipartisan coalition and finding ways to make this office and ways to make government work better.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com