Richard Allen Smith, Afghan war veteran and vice chairman of national soldier and veteran advocacy organization VoteVets, on Thursday hand delivered a petition with more than 9,000 signatures asking Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler to drop the lawsuit he filed seeking to prevent counties in the state from mailing ballots to inactive voters, including to soldiers serving away from home. The organization is asking Gessler to accept a decision handed down in district court last week finding insupportable Gessler’s interpretation of election law in the matter.
“I didn’t meet Gessler,” Smith told the Colorado Independent on his way back from the office. “I met two people from the Elections Division. They were polite and professional but they didn’t let on about Gessler’s plans. Actually, one of them seemed more interested in sharpshooting our petition.”
Smith said that, of the 9,000 signatures he delivered, 3,400 were signatures from veterans. He said the petition contained the full names, addresses and, where appropriate, veteran status. The Elections Division staffer, however, suggested that wasn’t enough.
“He wanted to know how we had informed our members, what we told them this was about. He also asked for email addresses and phone numbers for each [signatory]. I feel like that would be intrusive, not very polite to ask for that personal information,” Smith said.
Gessler has argued that sending ballots to inactive voters — registered voters who failed to cast ballots in 2010 — violates state law. The law requires clerks to send ballots to all active voters and Gessler maintains that that language precludes clerks from also sending to inactive voters. He has pointed out that not all counties have mailed to inactive voters this year or in past years and that he intends to make election processes uniform across the state. He has said preventing clerks from mailing inactive ballots will also guard against voter fraud, although the incidence of voter fraud tied to mailed ballots is almost non existent, nor is it in any way a greater threat where inactive voter ballots as opposed to active voter ballots are concerned. Gessler has provided no evidence to suggest anything different.
Denver had already sent out its ballots to inactive voters, including soldiers doing service out of county, when Gessler filed suit to win an injunction. Denver has sent out ballots to inactive voters for the last five years.
Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert Ortiz joined the lawsuit the week before the hearing, pained by the notion that soldiers from Pueblo stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be denied a basic democratic right they are fighting to foster overseas. Upon hearing the judge’s ruling against Gessler, he ordered his office to immediately mail out the inactive voter ballots.
Ortiz said his county legal counsel had advised that Gessler’s rule would violate federal law ensuring that clerks mail ballots to all registered-voter service members.
Putting aside the legal arguments, Ortiz told the Independent that 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.”
Smith’s organization, VoteVets, has more than 100,000 members. The organization seeks to advance legislation that benefits veterans but also works to make known veterans’ opinions on top issues of the day.
“I live in Denver,” Smith said. “I’ll just say I’m a big fan of democracy. So I was following this story pretty closely anyway. When Clerk Ortiz asked Gessler ‘What about soldiers?’ ‘What about the military?’ That’s when we really got involved.
“I love Colorado. I didn’t want people around the country to see this as the kind of place that is bad on voting.”