Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler made national news this week by filing a lawsuit to stop Denver County, and by extension all Colorado counties, from mailing ballots to the state’s “inactive” voters. The case drew the attention of voter-rights defenders US Reps Charles Gonzalez of Texas and Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, who wrote a letter asking the justice department to investigate. The congressional letter (embedded below) is just the latest alarmed response to Gessler’s lawsuit, which has featured howls from the local and national press, complaints from voter activist groups and legal push-back from Denver and Pueblo county election officials. At the eye of the storm, Gessler communications staff has been mostly hunkered down and silent on the matter, spokesperson Rich Coolidge surfacing at last Thursday in a Texas newspaper to dismiss the congressional concerns as political gamesmanship.
Coolidge told the the San Antonio Express-News that “voters in Texas and Pennsylvania were tired of congressmen playing politics and [tired of] waiting for Congress to pass a jobs bill.”
Coolidge can’t be blamed for trying to drain some of the heat from the topic but he won’t succeed.
Gessler’s lawsuit comes against a backdrop of the historic number of controversial efforts nationwide to rewrite or introduce new voter laws that many see as Republican partisan attempts to tamp down voter participation in advance of the presidential election next year. Concerns about protecting the basic democratic right to vote teamed with the number of Colorado voters Gessler’s suit targets suggest the kind of stakes involved.
An “inactive” voter in Colorado is a legally registered voter who has failed for whatever reason to cast ballots in two back-to-back elections or failed to return postcards to clerks to reactivate their status.
Roughly 646,000 registered voters in Colorado who cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election failed to cast ballots for whatever reason in the elections of 2009 and 2010, causing them to drop from the “active” to the “inactive” category on state rolls. That’s roughly 20 percent of all registered voters in the state and roughly 35 percent of the state’s 1,831,000 active voters. In other words, it is a lot of swing-state Colorado citizens and an even higher percentage of its voting population.
Researchers on electoral voting have found (pdf) that mailing ballots to “inactive” voters succeeds at drawing them out and increases participation in elections significantly. Inactive voters, after all, are citizens predisposed to vote. They’re registered, they have voted in the past, and the convenience of receiving a ballot in the mail spurs them to vote in high percentages, especially in off-year elections, which draw lower-level media coverage and generate less local public energy and enthusiasm.
Gilbert Ortiz, clerk in Pueblo County, home to a high population of military personnel, told the Colorado Independent that Gessler’s directive would effectively disenfranchise soldiers. He sent a letter to Gessler this week arguing that the secretary’s interpretation of election law would violate the Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act. The act directs clerks across the nation to mail ballots to all registered voter soldiers, active or inactive. Ortiz told the Colorado Independent that the idea that he would refuse to send ballots to soldiers fighting overseas because they didn’t vote in a previous election would go against his most basic priorities as clerk. “This is not a comfortable place to be,” he said.
In their letter to the justice department, Congressmen Gonzalez and Brady say the Gessler lawsuit against Denver County suggests a “disturbing pattern” that smacks of voter suppression.
What Secretary Gessler suggests is likely to disenfranchise eligible voters and should be condemned therefore…
Nor is this the first action by Secretary Gessler to raise concerns about the potential for disenfranchisement of eligible voters in Colorado. In March of this year, at a hearing of the Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections, Mr. Gonzalez, the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, cautioned him about his use of a poorly conceived and executed report to gin up support for legislation allowing him to purge voters from the rolls. One would hope that this experience would lead to introspection. Instead, the Secretary has moved from trying to purge voter rolls to trying to deny ballots directly. This is a disturbing pattern.
Gessler’s suit against Denver County is scheduled to be heard October 7th in a district court.