Watchdog groups demand secretary of state accept incomplete voter registrations

(Photo/unquiet, Flickr)
(Photo/unquiet, Flickr)

Voting rights experts upbraided Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman today for shirking federal law by rejecting as many as 10,000 new voter applications.

In a letter to Coffman, representatives of eight organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado, Colorado Common Cause and the Fair Elections Legal Network in Washington, D.C., demanded that the secretary of state’s office direct county clerks to accept applications with minor omissions or technical mistakes.

“The policy put out by the Secretary of State unfairly punishes a significant portion of the Colorado electorate,” says Elena Nuñez, program director with Colorado Common Cause.

At issue is a new voter registration form that Coffman approved for use this year in order to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The form, which voter watchdog groups say is unclearly worded, asks voters without Colorado identification to enter the last four digits of their Social Security number, plus check a box to indicate that they don’t have state ID. However, thousands of voters — at least 3,100 in Denver alone — either did not check the box or erroneously used their Social Security number when they should have entered a driver’s license number.

The forms contained enough information to verify the voter’s eligibility, however county clerks all over the state rejected the applications. Voting rights experts say that this practice is “inconsistent” with a 1971 federal law mandating elections officials to accept incomplete voter registration forms, so long as they could ascertain that the applicant is indeed eligible to vote.

“Even though they provided the forms they needed, they might not get to vote,” says Nuñez. “We are asking that their registrations be completed so they can participate.”

The letter also raised concerns that county clerks — overwhelmed by sorting through hundreds of thousands of new voter applications — have delayed addressing these incomplete forms. That cuts down the amount of time that an applicant has to amend his or her faulty form.

In the case that the secretary of state’s office refuses to change course, representatives from the groups called on Coffman and the county clerks to more aggressively reach out to people with incomplete applications. Current practice is for clerks to mail a letter to these individuals, who have until the end of the month to fix their registrations. The voting rights experts urged Coffman to allow these people to amend their registrations over the phone, rather than in person.

“We would love to see the Secretary of State take leadership on the issue and advance a policy of letting eligible voters who filled out forms to get onto the rolls,” says Nuñez. “But if that doesn’t happen, we are asking clerks to make sure the incomplete forms are processed as quickly as possible so there is time for them to get on the rolls.”

Nuñez says that legal action may be on the table if Coffman doesn’t move on the issue.

Secretary of State spokesman Richard Coolidge did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Denver County Clerk spokesman Alton Dillard has recently downplayed the severity of the issue, saying, “The talk going on about people being denied the right to vote because of this is incorrect.”

The voting rights experts, on the other hand, say the problem could only get worse as county clerks are still processing applications ahead of Election Day.

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