DENVER–A House committee approved a sweeping elections overhaul late Monday on a party-line vote over the objections of Secretary of State Scott Gessler and despite testy exchanges between Democrats and a raucous crowd.
House Bill 1303 cleared its first hurdle on a 7-4 vote after nearly eight hours of testimony, and it could have gone longer. Some of the bill’s opponents left before they could testify in the face of a steadily worsening snowstorm.
The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act would transform Colorado elections into almost exclusively vote-by-mail affairs by sending a mail-in ballot to every voter and dramatically reducing the number of Election Day polling places. The measure would also allow same-day voter registration, eliminate inactive voter status, and put all counties on the same statewide voter database.
“We will move this election system into the 21st century with technology that will save money and will protect the integrity of our voting system,” said Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder).
Gessler charged that the measure was drafted by Democrats and some county clerks without input from the Secretary of State’s office or Republicans. Other supporters include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, ProgressNow Colorado and Common Cause, leading to charges that the bill amounts to a Democratic effort to gain an advantage at the ballot box.
Gessler made little effort to hide his disdain for the bill or how his office was frozen out of the months-long drafting process.
“This is a flawed bill and this is an example of bad government,” said Gessler. “Frankly, the people who wrote it who are behind us wrote it in secret; they froze out any voice that disagreed with them; they didn’t listen to my office’s expertise; they didn’t listen to public concerns that may have disagreed with their views, and frankly they didn’t listen to many counties.”
Another point of contention was the bill’s fiscal note, which says the measure will cost about $1 million and save the state as much as $9.5 million per year. Gessler called the savings estimate “suspect,” saying that Jefferson County had estimated it would save $3.5 million even though El Paso County, the state’s largest county, spent a total of $1.2 million on its 2012 presidential election.
Gessler also said the cost figure slashes by a third the estimate provided by his office, includes revenue-saving measures that were instituted last year, and fails to acknowledge the actual cost of hiring technicians or account for a likely increase in the price of postage.
“I haven’t read it closely. I’ve had to limit my reading to non-fiction lately,” said Gessler.
His remarks drew a round of applause, prompting the first of several calls for quiet from state Rep. Su Ryden (D-Aurora), chair of the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
Proponents note that mail-in voting is popular: in 2012, 74 percent of voters cast ballots by mail. At the same time, say the bill’s critics, Colorado has no problem with getting voters to the polls–the state bucked the national trend in 2012 by recording an increase in voter participation.
The testimony also exposed a rift among the state’s county clerks, who are charged with running elections. While clerks from Boulder, Jefferson and La Plata counties testified in favor of the bill, the Douglas and El Paso county clerks are opposed to it.
Supporters of the bill said the statewide database would help eliminate the fraud concerns often linked to same-day voter registration. Those who prefer to cast their ballot on Election Day would still be able to take it to a Voter Services Center instead of using the mail.
“For the first time, we’ll be able to have statewide connectivity on election day,” said Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall. “We can see if an address is correct, we can look up a previous voter and find out if their ballot has been issued, we can cancel that ballot in real time and issue a new ballot if that’s what’s required, we can also see if that voter has already cast that ballot and therefore we will not issue another ballot.”
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams testified in a video message against the bill, calling it “radical” and saying it would increase the chances of voter fraud. He noted that the bill only requires would-be Election Day voters to produce a utility bill as proof of residency.
“This bill doesn’t require a driver’s license or state-issued ID,” said Williams. “Instead, it opens the door to election day fraud that can’t be prevented because there’s not enough time to check the records.”
The bill, sponsored by state Reps. Hullinghorst and Dan Pabon (D-Denver) and state Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo), goes next to the House Appropriations Committee.