Democratic-backed elections reform bill heads to Guv

Republicans cry foul, call bill a sham
The Colorado Statesman

The Senate on Thursday backed sweeping elections reform legislation that has polarized the legislature, resulting in marathon debate that kicked off Tuesday when Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, moved for the entire 126 pages to be read at length.

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed House Bill 1303 by a party-line vote of 20-15, despite the stall tactic. Amendments were later approved by the House, which sent the bill to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, for his signature.

Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder and Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon of Denver sponsored the measure.

Senate Reading Clerk Max Majors on Tuesday during second reading read the bill for about two and a half hours, with help from staff. Long-time Capitol observers could not remember another time when such a long bill was read at length. During the redistricting debate of 2003, the reading clerk was asked to read Senate Bill 352, but the measure was only 20 pages.

Republicans, who debated the bill on Tuesday into Wednesday morning for nearly seven hours, view its passage as a power grab. One by one they took to the well, drawing out debate on the measure, while Democrats mostly sat at their desks, choosing not to speak during the Republican filibuster.

At one point, Harvey moved a technical amendment to the bill that simply corrected a typo. He pleaded with Democrats to speak to the amendment.

“The majority caucus has locked down on any amendments to this bill. What about a drafting error?” he asked.

“Let’s talk about this for 10 minutes. Ten minutes on a drafting error. Since not one single Democrat will come up here and say why they’re going to vote ‘no’ on every single amendment that’s come up here, let’s talk about why they shouldn’t come up and vote for a drafting revision,” Harvey continued.

“Where’s the majority party going to be on this?” he began shouting from the well. “Where are they? Come up here and defend yourself. Please come up here and vote. Tell me why you’re not going to vote for this.”

Democrats quickly called the revision a good amendment, and backed the technical change.

There was also a bit of drama Tuesday night when Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, referred to HB 1303 as “horseshit.”

“I keep hearing that this is going to ensure safe and secure elections. Who are we kidding? Is that a joke…?” asked Hill. “I got a text from some of my constituents and friends that use a more technical term. They call it horseshit. And that’s what this is.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who was chairing the Senate at the time, gaveled Hill out of order and reminded him that he is in the Senate, where cursing is not tolerated. Steadman’s interruption caused a bit of a fight between Republicans and Democrats as they called for a brief recess to huddle in the corner of the chamber where Republicans questioned why Democratic leadership would cut Hill off.

“That’s what you want us to become?” Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll of Aurora asked Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs.

“It’s not about what we’ll become,” responded Cadman. “You can disagree with what he says…”

Modernizing elections

Democrats say HB 1303 is about modernizing the state’s elections. The bill has several key components, including:

• Shortening the time required for state residency in order to register to vote;

• Expanding the voter registration deadline through Election Day;

• Requiring clerks to mail ballots to all voters, even if they have not elected all-mail;

• Mandating that clerks establish a minimum number of voter service and polling centers;

• Repealing the category of inactive-failed-to-vote, thereby prohibiting clerks and the secretary of state’s office from refusing to mail ballots to inactive voters;

• Authorizing clerks to electronically transmit elections-related communications; and

• Requiring the secretary of state to conduct monthly change of address searches on all electors, and mandate that clerks update those voters’ records.

“This legislation was a Colorado solution,” Giron said during closing remarks Thursday just before the third reading vote. “It was based on what we do here and what our needs are here, and this bill addresses that. We are going to allow eligible voters to have access, to get in there and vote, and that’s going to make our state better and our democracy better.”

Democrats as a whole were a bit livelier on Thursday. Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, offered impassioned words supporting the bill, lambasting Republicans for opposing the measure.

“We shouldn’t go back to change this bill to try and limit the process. That’s stacking the deck… when you try and choose who gets to vote or not to vote,” said Ulibarri. “We’re trying to make sure that every single eligible voter has the opportunity to vote… This bill does that.”

Political firestorm

Throughout the process, the legislation has become entrenched in politics — from Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler calling the legislation “piss-poor” and its sponsors “crazy” to a division within the Colorado County Clerks Association.

Gessler believes Democrats have shut him out of the process, though Democrats say the secretary disinvited them from presenting their bill to his office.

Meanwhile, about 75 percent of the state’s 64 county clerks have supported the measure, while a handful have opposed it, causing further instability. The clerks association has not disclosed which clerks supported or opposed the measure.

Mailers targeting La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee Parker and Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner — both Republicans — surfaced after the two clerks supported the bill. The mailers came from Citizens for Free and Fair Elections, with a return address that matched Gessler’s old law firm, Hackstaff Law Group.

The mailers were digitally altered to remove a picture of a black person from a photo of voters standing in line. The company that made the flier said it was simply trying to make a point about voter fraud, not race. Still, the altered fliers raised eyebrows and reached national headlines.

Citizens for Free and Fair Elections was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2008 by Hackstaff Gessler LLC. But Gessler left the firm when he was elected secretary of state. The law firm has since changed its name to Hackstaff Law Group.

Financial disclosures obtained by The Colorado Statesman show that he continues to receive income from Hackstaff. But a spokesman has said that the income is related to a buyout agreement and not current work.

At least three clerks from El Paso, Douglas and Arapahoe counties have stated their opposition. El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams left the association after it indicated its support of the reform effort.

Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Matt Crane, a Republican, told The Statesman that when the legislation was first being discussed — before it was drafted — he was open to discussing the measure. But when same-day registration became a part of the bill, he said his position changed.

“I was intrigued because I do support all-mail ballot elections,” said Crane. “I also like the idea of being able to update our voter file… However, the real poison pill for me was the inclusion of unfettered same-day registration. Without any additional identification verification requirements, there was no way I could support this bill.”

GOP concerned with same-day voter fraud

Republican legislators attempted to appease those concerns by offering amendments that would have required photo identification in order to vote if a voter is flagged for not registering with an identification card. Democrats shot down the proposal.

Republicans and Democrats have gone back and forth on the issue. Democrats argue that identification is already required to register to vote, while Republicans say a person can vote by simply showing a utility bill. The answer is somewhere in between.

According to the secretary of state’s office, a driver’s license or state identification card must be used to register to vote. However, if a citizen does not have such identification, then the last four digits of a Social Security number can be used. And even if that isn’t available, then a citizen can register to vote, but they must show identification in order to actually cast their ballot. That identification can be a utility bill.

So, Democrats are correct that identification is required in order to register to vote. But because there are other options, Republicans are correct that a utility bill can be used as identification when casting a ballot.
This is where Republican concern comes into play. The GOP suggests that with same-day registration, a person could register without any photo identification, and then show their utility bill in order to actually cast a ballot.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, was so angry about the bill that he ran an unsuccessful amendment that would have renamed it the Same Day Voter Fraud Act. That amendment, no surprise, failed.

“Who should care if a few extra votes get dropped in that weren’t legitimate?” asked Lundberg. “Every one of us who votes should care, because that illegitimate vote cancels out your legitimate vote.”

But Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson — who supports the bill — points out that statistics indicate that such instances are negligible. Her office looked at Denver and Boulder counties, which have some of the most transient populations and would have the most voters with the issue.

Since 2008, in Boulder only 123 out of a voter population of 197,382 registered with no identification or Social Security number. In Denver, 487 out of a voter population of 354,519 registered with no ID or Social.

“There’s very, very few people that utilize that option…” said Anderson. “The more important question is, is it my experience that people generally go out to fraudulently vote, or register… That has not been our experience.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com