Dems quash Colorado voter-registration bill, call it costly and unconstitutional

State Democratic lawmakers killed a bill (pdf) yesterday that would have required Coloradans to provide proof of citizenship before registering to vote, saying it was a solution in search of a problem and eschewing vehement testimony from its supporters and new data introduced by new GOP Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Bill sponsor Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said lawmakers should expect the legislation to be reintroduced in the House.

The bill would have required residents to provide either a passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers, among others forms of identification, in order to vote.

Currently, the state asks Coloradans only to sign a form attesting that they are citizens and eligible to vote in the country and state. Swearing falsely to citizenship and voter eligibility is a crime.

“The citizen’s of our state should never question if the votes they cast are being canceled or diluted by the votes of individuals that are not legally eligible to be participating in our voting system,” Harvey argued. Later telling the committee that “a vote today against this bill is blessing that illegal behavior.”

Harvey cited a study conducted by Secretary of State Scott Gessler to show that some immigrants are illegally registered to vote in Colorado.

Gessler testified that, although there was no evidence of direct voter fraud, he said Harvey’s bill was necessary. He said that after comparing motor vehicle records with voter registeration, there appears to be numerous cases where immigrants have improperly signed up to vote.

“We compared the DMV motor vehicle database to the voter rolls,” Gessler said. “We found that there were about 1,600 who were temporary residents in Colorado when they got their driver’s licenses, but they are also on the voter rolls. There are about 13,000 who are resident aliens and about 1,300 almost 1,400 who are on the INS arrival/departure records.”

Gessler said that it was possible that some of those individuals may have become naturalized citizens since registering to vote.

Democratic senators disagreed that they were condoning illegal voting. They said the data doesn’t support Gessler’s contention that illegal voting is a problem in Colorado, at least not a problem on the scale that would require the expensive and vote-chilling solution offered by Harvey. They said erecting barriers to voting for the elderly and poor was unconscionable. They said a problem more real than unsubstantiated voter fraud was that Coloradans could be disenfranchised by Harvey’s bill.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said there are many impoverished people who would not be able to vote if they were forced to produce identification.

“I think that making it harder for those people to vote is a travesty in this building. I find that there are too many people who will be excluded when we move toward these types of documents.”

Committee Chair Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said one of the reasons he was not voting for the bill was the burden it would place on local governments to fund its implementation.

According to the fiscal note, the bill would have cost “mid-size counties” $50,000 each in the first year alone– money that could not be provided by the state given current budget shortfalls. Heath said he ultimately agreed with Bacon.

“There are a lot of people that aren’t that fortunate and it is not that easy [to get proof of citizenship]. If I am going to err, I am going to err on allowing people to vote rather than discourage it,” Heath said.

Jesse Ulibarri, legislative director for the ACLU of Colorado, said the bill was likely unconstitutional and that killing the bill would save the state a costly lawsuit. He said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a similar citizenship law in Arizona on the grounds that it violated the National Voting Rights Act.

“The current process ensures that eligible electors can verify their citizenship under criminal penalties, specifically perjury, without going through a burdensome process that limits their democracy,” Ulibarri said. “That is the section that the appeals court ruled on in October that violated the National Voting Rights Act.”

Ulibari said SB 18 restricts access to the polls, and creates an unconstitutional poll tax for eligible voters. Ulibari said a birth certificate, one of the cheapest forms of proof of citizenship in the bill, costs $37.75. He said no citizen should have to pay to vote.

Although some members of the audience testified that $37.75 was no great burden. They said people unwilling or unable to come up with the funds did not deserve to be represented. Most others testifying before the committee agreed that all citizens deserve the ability to exercise their right to vote and many called for programs to help citizens attain identification.

Advocates said programs exist, but the money is simply not there to help every person in need, again raising the specter of more spending related to the bill.

Harvey told the Colorado Independent that he wasn’t discouraged by the bill’s quick death. He said the Senate was just a test run for its reemergence in the House.

“I always have a philosophy to start the bills in the weak chamber. To do it quickly to see if we can get it out of there before there is much conversation about it,” Harvey said. “If it dies, we will start it again over in the House and bring it back and try to create more momentum for it.”

(Top photo: Senator Bob Bacon, who opposed the bill. (Boven) Second photo: Senator Ted Harvey and Secretary of State Scott Gessler. (Boven)

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