Inactive voters playing major role in Pueblo County election

Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz defended his right to send ballots to “inactive voters” this year over the objections of Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Ortiz told the Colorado Independent he believes his main objective as clerk is to facilitate participation in elections and, on that score, he has succeeded. As of Monday night, 16 percent of the county’s roughly 17,000 inactive voters had cast ballots. That’s 2,700 votes, nearly 9 percent of all votes cast in the county, which is a lot of votes.

“This means that Pueblo[‘s] [inactive] voters responded and will have a significant impact on this year’s election,” Ortiz said. “The bottom line is that all registered voters had the opportunity to cast a vote. And the more people who participate, the stronger our community.”

Ortiz reports that the largest percentage of inactive voter ballots is coming from hard-pressed Pueblo County District Two, where roughly 700 inactive voters cast ballots, which is 23 percent of the votes cast in the district.

“That’s the way it is across the state,” Ortiz told the Independent. “That’s what they found in Denver, too. Many inactive voters reside in economically challenged areas.”

An inactive voter in Colorado is one who is legally registered but who has failed to cast a vote in the previous general election.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow compared a map of Denver County inactive voters with a demographic map of the county, demonstrating that Gessler’s order would have disproportionately affected minority voters.

Gessler unveiled his new interpretation of state election law in September, just weeks before Election Day, telling clerks it was illegal for them to send ballots to inactive voters. He then filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin Denver County from sending out ballots to inactive voters. Pueblo County later joined the suit.

Gessler said he was seeking to make state election processes uniform and to guard against fraud. He never provided any evidence of fraud related to inactive voter ballots. Many believed Gessler, a longtime Republican partisan campaign finance and election law attorney, was engaging in thinly veiled vote suppression.

A Denver District Court judge ultimately ruled against Gessler and the injunction. The court is still weighing the secretary of state’s interpretation of the law. Ortiz said he expects a decision in March or April.

Pueblo County, like Denver, has routinely mailed ballots to all registered voters, active and inactive. Ortiz was pained by Gessler’s new order and pointed out that the “inactive voter” category included soldiers fighting overseas, men and women seeking to promote the democratic right to vote in places like Afghanistan.

Ortiz said Pueblo County counsel advised him 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.

On average, roughly 3 percent of inactive voters statewide cast ballots in recent elections, according to the secretary of state’s website. Counties have previously weighed whether or not to send inactive voters ballots mainly based on cost concerns. Nine counties sent out ballots to inactive voters this year.

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