Thousands of purged Colorado voters have no clue that they’ve been removed from the state’s rolls. And that could make for some dramatic scenarios on Election Day tomorrow when would-be registered voters are denied a regular ballot at the polls.
Last week, voting rights experts scored a win to protect these voters who were removed from the rolls by allowing them to vote by provisional ballot. The Advancement Project, a national voter protection organization, filed suit against Secretary of State Mike Coffman for illegally removing as many as 30,000 voters after a 90-day no purge federal deadline. In a settlement, Coffman agreed to provide provisional ballots to purged voters who show up at the polls on Election Day. These special provisional forms will be verified before any others in the two weeks after the election.
But that doesn’t solve one central problem: many purged voters simply don’t know they’ve been canceled. Coffman has directed county clerks to remove people from the rolls in order to ward against voter fraud. The secretary has an arsenal of reasons to bump individuals. But within 90 days of an election, he may only remove felony convicts, deceased people or those who request to be taken off. In its suit, the Advancement Project alleged that Coffman illegally removed eligible voters within the 90-day no purge period. The list includes people who have moved or those whose registration cards bounced back to county clerks, among other individuals.
In order to let the canceled folks know about their status, at least one organization has published a list of purged voters in Colorado and several other states. Project Vote, a nonpartisan civic engagement group based in Washington, D.C., culled the names and addresses of newly registered voters who were removed from the rolls. The organization compiled the data on a Web site, urging people to peruse the database for friends and family and alert them to call their county clerks about their registrations. Project Vote did not return phone calls seeking clarification on how it obtained and compiled its list.
However, The Colorado Independent called several people on the list and found that many of them already fixed their registrations and have voted early or by mail. These people did not find out they were purged by elections officials. Rather, they double-checked their registrations and learned of the problem on their own.
Take Bob Benhoff, a 26-year-old librarian who lives in Arapahoe County. Benhoff has voted in every election since he was 18 years old. He grew up in Clear Creek County, and when he moved to Arapahoe County this year he decided to re-register to vote at a League of Women Voters drive at his library in September.
Several weeks passed and Benhoff became worried when he didn’t receive any election-related documents in the mail. He decided to check his registration online. “It is a combination of things,” he says, explaining his vigilance. “I didn’t get a Blue Book [the Colorado Legislative Council’s ballot guide]. I had heard a little bit about the purging thing. I like to double and triple check.”
Benhoff plugged his information into the Arapahoe County Web site, but he didn’t show up as a registered voter. Then he called Clear Creek County to see if he was still on their rolls. He wasn’t. “Clear Creek said I was dropped from their rolls because I had moved. So I guess Arapahoe County notified them but then I got purged sometime after that.”
Benhoff called Arapahoe County to explain the problem. A clerk asked him to come to the office with a receipt to prove he had registered. Luckily, Benhoff had kept the receipt from that day in the library and he was able to fill out an emergency registration form. He voted by mail last week. But he remains perplexed as to why he was dropped from the rolls.
“If I was purged, my initial question is: Why? People have alleged that this is illegal. I can’t think of any reason why I would be legally purged.”
Another voter has a similar story. Loretta Williams, an 82-year-old mother of five, re-registered to vote in August when she moved to an assisted living facility in Arapahoe County. When the Colorado Independent phoned Williams, she did not know that her name appeared on the Project Vote list and she referred questions to her daughter, Kerri Gray.
Gray, who lives in Denver, shared the story of how her mother — a voter since she was 21 — was purged from the rolls and later reinstated. Two weeks ago, Gray decided to double check on her own registration and make sure that her mail-in ballot was on the way by logging onto the Colorado Secretary of State’s Web site. Her information appeared on the site. But when she plugged in her mother’s name and address, nothing showed up. Concerned, Gray typed in addresses where her mother lived in the past. Again, nothing.
“At that point, I knew we had a problem,” says Gray, stressing the importance of the election to her mother and her family. “One of the things that has been motivating my mom to stay alive is this election. That is one of the reasons she is here.”
Gray phoned Arapahoe County. The clerk looked up Williams’ information and saw that her voter confirmation card was returned to sender and that she was struck from the rolls. Colorado law mandates counties to remove any voter applicants whose confirmation cards bounce back to the county within 20 days in order to verify that person’s address. The Advancement Project challenged the legality of this so-called 20-day rule in its suit against Coffman, but the settlement did not address the law.
Gray says that the clerk on the phone guessed that the post office was to blame since Williams’ address was listed correctly on the form. And though the clerk agreed to reinstate her mother, Gray was shaken up. “I was in tears,” she says, “I said, ‘I am not going to have to tell my mom that she can’t vote.’ That would be the last thing this year I could handle.”
Williams has since received her mail-in ballot. Gray says she will help her mother fill it out since she is blind in one eye, and she plans to hand-deliver it herself. “I don’t trust anybody,” she says, adding that she wishes someone had contacted her mother about the problem. “It would have been good to at least have a phone call. It was just luck. It was me being very engaged and trying to watch out for my mom.”
But many other purged voters won’t be so lucky. Coffman had another 146 names removed from Colorado’s rolls last week, prompting a federal judge to order Coffman to desist. These people join the thousands-long list of individuals who will get the ultimate Election Day surprise when they’ll learn they can’t vote by regular ballot.