DENVER–If Secretary of State Scott Gessler is trying to suppress voter registration, as his critics allege, he’s doing a pretty lousy job of it.
Gessler released figures Wednesday showing that voter registration in Colorado has increased 10 percent since the 2008 election, a jump he attributed to his office’s $1 million advertising campaign and groundbreaking online-registration technology.
“For the ad campaign, I think the data shows that it’s been frankly a spectacular success,” said Gessler at a Wednesday press conference. “With online voter registration, the data shows it’s been a spectacular success, as well. We’re pretty satisfied with what we’ve been able to accomplish here in Colorado.”
Preliminary numbers show that more than 79,000 people signed up to vote from the ad campaign kickoff Sept. 1 through the Oct. 9 registration deadline. Gessler noted that the number is expected to rise, given that registrations received at the end of the period are still being processed.
That brings the total number of Colorado voters to about 3,565,000 million, up nearly 400,000 from the 3.2 million who were registered to vote for the November 2008 election.
“Colorado did not grow 10 percent in the last four years,” said Gessler. “I think what contributed to this increase is the fact that that the Secretary of State’s office spent a million dollars in targeted, effective ads and mail, and the Secretary of State’s office made it incredibly easy for people to vote.”
He said the ad campaign was paid for by his office along with federal funding. His office is also working with the Pew Foundation on a survey of first-time registrants.
The success of the registration effort may not be enough to repair Gessler’s relationship with state Democrats, who have tangled with the secretary over his drive to remove ineligible voters from the rolls.
“The legislature authorized online voter registration before Scott Gessler took office,” said Democratic state Rep. Claire Levy in an email. “He has only been in office since 2011, so I think it’s odd for him to claim credit for voter registrations going back to 2008.”
Gessler’s announcement came less than an hour after two Colorado House Democrats held a press conference stating that they would introduce legislation next year to limit the Secretary of State’s rulemaking authority.
Reps. Levy and Crisanta Duran said they were spurred by Gessler’s issuance of an informal guidance in late September regarding poll-watchers. Levy noted that Gessler told county clerks that poll-watchers should have “personal, visual access at reasonable proximity to read documents, writing or electronic screens,” although they must obey state law preventing watchers from coming within six feet of a voting booth.
Levy said the rule would allow poll-watchers to “literally breathe down the neck of a voter from the sign-in table until the voter approaches the voting booth.”
“This kind of behavior creates a huge potential for intimidation of voters,” said Levy. “It should not take an act of courage for a citizen of Colorado to exercise his or her right to vote. This is not the Deep South in the ’60s.”
Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge rejected that scenario, noting that Colorado law allows poll-watchers to observe and verify voter signatures, which he described as the best way to authenticate a voter’s identity, given that Colorado does not require photo identification.
“I don’t know how that would be voter intimidation,” said Coolidge. “At that point the voter has already voted. Watchers are not allowed to look over people’s shoulders.”
Coolidge also noted that 70 percent of voters cast mail-in ballots, meaning that the guidance would be moot for the vast majority of Coloradans.
On Monday, the Colorado County Clerks Association sent a letter to Gessler, signed by former Secretary of State Donetta Davidson, objecting to some recent changes in rules as well as pointing out some glitches that have accompanied that state’s mobile online registration system.
Coolidge said the issues had yet to come up at the weekly conference call between the secretary and the county clerks. He added that not all clerks were aware of the letter, which was sent by Davidson on behalf of the group’s board.
“A lot of clerks didn’t even know the letter went out, so there’s a group of clerks that are submitting these, or a clerk–we don’t know,” said Coolidge. “When they say ‘the clerks,’ you think, ‘Oh it’s all 64,’ and it’s not true.”
The sparring between the Republican Gessler and Democrats is nothing new, but the intensity and frequency may have taken a personal toll on the secretary’s family. Gessler acknowledged after the press conference that he was forced to relocate his wife and daughter recently after receiving death threats at his office by email and telephone.
The threats also prompted him to return home early from the Republican National Lawyers Committee meeting, which he attended to brush up on elections law, he said.
Duran said she was sorry to hear about the threats, but she wasn’t about to back down on her criticism of the secretary.
“I deplore any personal threats against Secretary Gessler and his family. They have no place in political debate,” said Duran in an email. “But in less than two years in an office that’s responsible for impartial, nonpartisan supervision of elections, Secretary Gessler has compiled a record of partisanship that richly deserves the ‘rogue’ characterization.”