Balink, GOP-backed student voter disenfranchisement rages anew

(Photo/turtlemoon, Flickr)
(Photo/turtlemoon, Flickr)

An ominous-sounding letter that El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink sent to a journalism student at Colorado College has reignited a 3-week old controversy over his past erroneous assertion that out-of-state college students are not eligible to vote in Colorado.

In the latest controversy, Balink forwarded a letter to the CC student, written by an attorney whose firm has close ties to the Colorado Republican Party, warning of “cascading effects” that could happen if students vote in Colorado — including criminal penalties for not registering their cars in this state. Strong is an understatement for how Democratic elected officials and officers have responded, denouncing Balink for attempting to discourage students from voting.

“Just how much incompetence from Bob Balink are we going to put up with?” said an exasperated state Sen. John Morse, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, which is in El Paso County. “I’m sick and tired of this.”

Morse, along with other state Democratic Party officials, have scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Thursday in front of the clerk and recorder’s office in downtown Colorado Springs to denounce a letter that has been circulated by Balink about student voters as irresponsible and its message incorrect.

They are also planning to demand that Balink, who is active in El Paso County GOP politics and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention last month, disclose his “relationship” with the Denver law firm that prepared the letter.

Late Wednesday Matt Farrauto, the spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party, called the letter “ominous, scary and intimidating” to students who have been planning to vote in Colorado. (The full text of the letter appears below, in blockquote.)

“When the clerk should be encouraging voter participation and registration, this raises red flags and serious concerns,” Farrauto said. “Given [Balink’s] past behavior and his stubbornness in regard to ensuring a smooth and open access to the electoral process, this is a problem.”

Balink could not be reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Three weeks ago Balink issued a correction to a claim sent to Colorado College officials earlier this year that out-of-state students at the liberal arts college may not be eligible to vote. Balink subsequently said it was a big mix-up, and that his office had misinterpreted state law.

However, Democratic officials, including Morse and state Party Chairwoman Pat Waak, scoffed at the explanation, noting that Balink’s letter had not been sent to the Air Force Academy, also in Colorado Springs and presumably with a far more conservative student population than that of Colorado College.

Colorado law allows anyone who is over 18 years old, has resided in the state for more than 30 days and is a legal citizen to register and vote.

Nearly two weeks after Balink’s mea culpa, and in response to student Tabitha Hrynick’s inquiry about that very issue, Balink forwarded Hrynick a letter that had been prepared by Erik Groves, an attorney at the Denver firm of Zakhem-Atherton LLC. The firm specializes in election law, and routinely represents Republican clients. One of the firm’s attorneys, Ryan Call, took a leave of absence in July and signed on to be the political director and in-house legal counsel for the state Republican Party.

In his letter — sent to the student by Balink — Groves provided an analysis of what happens when students vote in Colorado. Among his claims: Students who register in Colorado must “abandon” any prior residency in other states and makes their departure from their parents’ homes “permanent.” In addition, Groves claims that students who register and vote in Colorado could “jeopardize” their parents financially — and that they could face criminal charges if they don’t also obtain Colorado driver’s licenses and register their vehicles in Colorado.

“This is bullshit, and it’s not supported by law,” said Morse. Further, such advocacy stretches far beyond the purview of the clerk and recorder, Morse has said. Finally, late Wednesday afternoon the state senator wondered why Balink, in cash-strapped El Paso County, apparently hired a Denver law firm to provide legal analysis instead of consulting with the county’s own tax-paid attorney.

In recent weeks Balink, who oversees elections in Colorado’s most populated county, has also been the target of additional criticism, including his decision to slice in half — from six to three — the number of early voting centers in the 2,000-square-mile county.

Here is the letter, written by attorney Erik Groves of Denver-based Zakhem-Atherton LLC, that El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink sent to a Colorado College journalism student — the latest message to come under fire by state Democratic officials:

The September 24th article [in the Colorado Springs Gazette], “Balink under fire for error on CC voter registration”, gives significant attention to whether Colorado College students are able to register to vote, yet little attention is given to the consequences of doing so.

Advocates, such as Senator John Morse, Martha Tierney, and Pat Waak, are correct in stating that there are no prohibitions on Colorado College students registering to vote. Nevertheless, out-of-state students should do so with their eyes wide open. Registering to vote in Colorado can have cascading effects that could affect the students and their parents financially.

When an individual registers to vote in Colorado, they make an affirmation that they are a resident of Colorado. The statement of residency exceeds merely being present in the state. The affirmation also includes abandoning prior residency in other states. Additionally, it makes departure from the student’s home permanent rather than temporary.

This distinction of a student living here temporarily or establishing a domicile has ramifications that go far beyond where they cast their ballot. Colorado law allows students who are here temporarily to maintain vehicle registration and drivers licenses in their home state. Once an out-of-state student registers to vote and declares Colorado as their state of residency, all the additional obligations of residency attach. These obligations include both vehicle registration and obtaining a Colorado drivers license. Failure to do either of these acts could result in criminal penalties. Are the students who are the targets of voter registration drives informed of these consequences? Are they aware of the big picture impact of signing the voter registration form?

Beyond the student’s new obligations related to Colorado state residency, there are other potential consequences to establishing residency as a student. Out-of-state students who are claimed as dependents by their parents can jeopardize their parents’ ability to claim the student as a dependent on their taxes. Establishing a new domicile outside of the parents’ home state could end up costing the parents the $3,500 tax deduction. The establishment of a new domicile could impact the student’s dependency status that is required for eligibility under the parents’ health insurance plan or auto insurance policy. Students who intend to return to a state school in their home state for graduate school could have a rough awakening when they find out that they have to pay out-of-state tuition because they have lost their previous in-state status. These are complex issues that must be addressed.

It is worth noting that an out-of-state student can still participate in the election by requesting an absentee ballot from their home state, if that is where they are registered. The voter registration drives that are targeting Colorado College students have a moral obligation to inform them of the impacts of their voter registration and to suggest that they consult with their parents prior to registering.

While groups that work to increase involvement in the electoral process should be applauded, blindly pushing students to register in Colorado, even when doing so could be to their detriment, is wrong. Registering out-of-state students in Colorado without fully disclosing the potential impacts of such registration borders on exploitation.

For further information contact:
Zakhem-Atherton LLC
Mr. Erik Groves
Denver, CO

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