Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz will comply with Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s order not to send ballots to soldiers out of state who are legally registered Pueblo County voters but who failed to cast ballots in 2010. The news came Friday afternoon in a carefully worded release that came after hours of deliberation.
“Pueblo County will honor Secretary Gessler’s order but this is not over,” Ortiz is quoted to say. “Pueblo County is currently weighing [its] legal options, including taking the issue to court. The Secretary of State effectively has denied 64 active military personnel the opportunity to vote.”
Gessler unveiled a new interpretation of state election law last week, when he filed a lawsuit to stop Denver County from mailing ballots to “inactive” voters as it had done for the last five years. An inactive voter in Colorado is a voter who is legally registered but who has failed to cast a vote in the previous general election– in this case the election of 2010.
Pueblo County, like Denver, has routinely mailed ballots to all registered voters. Ortiz was committed to do the same this year and pushed back against Gessler this week. He said counsel had advised that Gessler’s interpretation of election law would force Pueblo– and all the counties of Colorado by extension– to violate the federal Uniform Military and Overseas Voters Act, which requires clerks to mail ballots to all eligible voters in the military.
For that reason Ortiz sent a letter to Gessler asking him to submit in writing by Friday an order to Pueblo County not to send ballots out to soldiers. Gessler sent the order Thursday evening. Ortiz has been debating what course of action to take in the hours since.
“The soldiers won’t technically be disenfranchised. They can fax or email for ballots,” Ortiz told the Colorado Independent. To his way of thinking, however, that’s not good enough. The point of mailing the ballots is to help the soldiers out.
“You can just imagine, they have bigger things on their minds. When they have the ballot in their hand, they’ll vote,” he said.
Research on voting and elections backs up Ortiz’s common sense take. A University of Colorado-Denver study (pdf) prepared this year for the Colorado Secretary of State by the Buechner Institute of Governance, reports that mailing ballots to all registered voters, active and inactive, would increase participation. Mailing only to active voters, on the other hand, could well suppress turnout because registered inactive voters, although predisposed to cast ballots, are busy and distracted or in and out of town. The mailed ballots remind them to participate, and they do.
Surely soldiers are as busy and distracted as any of us, said Ortiz, and probably more so. He points to legislative efforts to ensure soldiers have access to ballots and a relatively easy time casting them.
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986 and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (Move) of 2009 set up timelines and procedures to make sure service members can exercise their right to vote without undue burden. The acts removed notarization requirements, required registration applications and absentee ballots be available online and established a 45-day window for ballots to be mailed and returned, for example.
Ortiz takes his cue as clerk from the priorities guiding such legislative efforts.
“UOCAVA and MOVE make it easier for soldiers to vote,” said Ortiz. “But why not make it even easier? That’s how I see it.”
In the release he said much the same thing but perhaps more artfully.
“It’s only right that Pueblo residents who are serving our country in the military should have the chance to cast their ballot here at home. Military men and women should be given every opportunity to participate in the democracy they’re defending …they may be listed as ‘inactive’ voters in our system but, when they’re on active duty, how can we deny them a ballot?”
Gessler made a career as a lawyer of defending Republican clients and causes in election and campaign finance cases. He has been a controversial secretary of state since winning office in the “GOP wave election” of 2010. He has said that, in directing majority Democratic Denver and Pueblo county not to mail ballots to inactive voters, he is seeking to guard against fraud and make the state’s election rules uniform. His detractors have said Gessler has displayed a pattern of endorsing radical solutions to problems that don’t really exist, that what he’s really up to is suppressing the vote in advance of the presidential election of 2012.