Colorado: The Florida of 2012?

Unlike 10 other states this year—the most strict of which are Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kansas—Colorado has no law that will require voters to show up at the polls with photo identification* on Election Day. Voting-rights activists say such laws will disenfranchise the poor, young, or very old—voters that tend to lean Democratic—and point out that the in-person vote fraud these laws are intended to address is exceedingly rare. But voter-ID laws are only the most obvious way to make it harder to vote.

Colorado’s current Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, was elected in 2010, and it wasn’t long before he started to implement new rules that go after Democratic voters. “For the first time I can remember, we’re getting e-mails from everyday citizens saying things like, ‘I’m afraid my votes aren’t going to count, that the machines aren’t going to work,’” says Olivia Mendoza, executive director of CLLARO, a civic-engagement organization for Latinos in the state. “There’s a real feeling that the debacle in Florida could really happen here.”

Since 1990, residents have been able to register as permanent mail-in voters—every election, they receive a mail-in ballot without having to request one again. But Gessler changed the rules in 2011. Now, any permanent mail-in voter who failed to vote in the 2010 midterms is declared “inactive” and will not receive a ballot (in the past, voters had been deemed inactive only after a years-long period of inactivity). These voters are still eligible to vote, but they have to check their status. If it’s inactive, they must request a mail-in ballot by Tuesday or show up in person at the polls. Many voting-rights activists fear that the newly inactive voters would include many who registered to vote for President Barack Obama in 2008 and then didn’t bother to cast a ballot in the midterms.

This year, Gessler sent notices to nearly 4,000 voters whom he suspected were not citizens asking them to provide proof of their citizenship before voting. Many of them were Hispanic, and the majority were either unaffiliated with either party or registered Democrats. Gessler had previously claimed that as many as 11,000 noncitizens were voting in Colorado. But his investigation turned up a tiny fraction of that—according to Gessler’s office, 141 on voter rolls statewide were not citizens. Only 35, or .001 percent of the state’s electorate, had cast ballots in the past. Even those numbers were suspect. The secretary’s office said there were 42 noncitizens registered in Denver County, Colorado’s most populous county, but the director of elections there, Amber McReynolds, says four of those were noncitizens who had checked a box saying they were not citizens and were added to the rolls in a data-entry error; four didn’t check a box and were registered by default, as had been required by law; and the rest, 36, affirmatively stated they were citizens, which the state has no way of verifying. 

The tiny number of people whom Gessler found weren’t citizens and had voted wouldn’t be enough to swing the national election. Four thousand voters who got the letter and might be afraid to show up at the polls, however, is enough to swing key races in counties across in the state. Gessler’s not finished, either: Last week, he sent out about 300 more letters. “Secretary Gessler has a partisan reason why he’s doing all this, there’s no doubt,” says Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, a group that works to involve young voters in politics. (Gessler's spokesperson declined to comment for this article.)

Gessler has more generally been urging county clerks to clean up voter rolls and sued Denver County in 2011 for the number of inactive voters who were on its lists. Since then, McReynolds says that the county has reduced the number of inactive voters by more than half, down from about 50,000 at the time Gessler sued. Having outdated voter rolls, however, doesn’t equal voter fraud—that doesn’t occur until someone shows up at the polling place and votes, or sends in a ballot that is counted. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, as the numbers in Colorado show. "I think what these findings show is there's not a great deal of risk (of noncitizens voting) in these elections," Pam Anderson, the clerk and recorder for the key swing district of Jefferson County, told The Denver Post.

Just as worrisome as the voter purges in the state, however, is the fact that mail-in ballots are examined and signatures on the ballots are compared to the signatures on voter-registration forms. Signatures change over time, especially as voters age, and mail-in ballots are more likely to be challenged. A study from the Voting Technology Project found that 2 percent of mail-in ballots cast were rejected in 2008. That could make a big difference in a state where nearly half of all voters voted by mail in that election. This year, mail-in ballots cast by any voters on the list of 4,000 to whom Gessler sent a letter could receive even more scrutiny than usual. 

Even though a minuscule number of voters were taken off the rolls, a much larger number heard about the letters through the local and national press coverage Gessler’s office generated, says Mendoza. “The consistent talk about these issues has sort of penetrated the environment.” This is already a population that votes in smaller percentages than white voters do, and organizations like CLLARO are working to turn out the vote and clear up misinformation. “We would never want to perpetuate voter fraud,” Mendoza says. “But I also believe the role of the secretary of state is to increase access to voters, so it’s a two-pronged approach: to make sure there isn’t voter fraud happening and to increase access.”

*An earlier version of this story mistated the identified required in Colorado.

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