Colorado lawmakers won’t push ‘proof of citizenship’ bill this session

Colorado lawmakers who last year introduced legislation to address claims that perhaps thousands of undocumented residents had voted in the state will not re-introduce the legislation this year. Secretary of State Scott Gessler reportedly waved off the lawmakers, saying he felt he could address the issue outside the halls of the capitol with means available to him through his office.

“Gessler said he was confident he could accomplish what he wanted to accomplish without legislation,” Katherine Vitale, an aide to House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Chris Holbert, told the Colorado Independent. “[Gessler] said there was no need for a bill.”

Vitale added that Holbert, a Republican from Parker, remains “tenaciously” committed to the issue.

Aides to the Senate sponsor of the bill, Highlands Ranch Republican Ted Harvey, told the Independent that reintroducing the bill is not among the senator’s immediate priorities this session.

Messages asking the secretary of state’s office to expand on Gessler’s plans were not returned.

House Bill 1252, Holbert and Harvey’s “Proof of Citizenship” legislation, mirrored a law that passed in Tennessee last year. Both bills came as part of a wave of Republican-sponsored election legislation introduced in capitols around the country.

The Colorado bill would have granted the secretary of state expansive power to throw registered voters off the rolls. Specifically, it would have required the secretary to “periodically check” voter registration records against a collection of databases “maintained by federal and state agencies.” If the secretary suspected that any registered voter “may not be a citizen,” he or she could initiate a 90-day process whereby the voter would have to prove again his or her right to vote.

For government watchdogs who have battled Gessler all year on issues from inactive voter ballots to campaign finance reporting thresholds and schedules, the news that he intends to address the “proof of citizenship” question through his office alone is as alarming as it is unsurprising.

“Gessler said he was confident he could accomplish what he wanted to accomplish without legislation”

“Last year, the secretary of state asked the legislature to change the law to give him authority to address this alleged problem,” Colorado Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro wrote in an email. “Nothing has changed since then, except that the secretary has apparently made the calculation that he won’t fare better with the legislature this year than he did last year. We appear headed for a repeat of the all-too-familiar pattern where Secretary Gessler simply does as he pleases, forcing someone to go to court for yet another ruling that the Secretary has overstepped his authority.”

Gessler, a high-profile Republican election and campaign finance law attorney, was a main driver behind the Proof of Citizenship bill. He testified on its behalf in Denver and on Capitol Hill, referring to a study conducted by his office that found more than 11,000 “individuals who (1) were non-citizens at the time they obtained a [Colorado] driver’s license, and (2) are registered to vote.”

Gessler was suggesting his office had uncovered a flaw in the state’s voter registration system that opened a door through which thousands of undocumented residents might land on the voter rolls and fraudulently cast ballots. It was a dramatic charge, although under scrutiny the numbers Gessler cited kept shifting, mostly downward. Thousands of illegally registered individuals became hundreds and then at last “106.” What’s more, Gessler was even less clear on whether or not even a single one of these 106 alleged illegally registered people had ever cast a vote.

Although county clerks, Democrat and Republican, pressed Gessler to reveal how and where they had failed to protect the state against fraud, they were never satisfied.

Gessler’s testimony in Denver and Washington and the study conducted by his office nevertheless garnered attention-getting headlines like the one run by Fox News pictured below, fueling doubts about the integrity of elections and playing into anti-Latino sentiment bolstering Tea Party legislative and election campaigns coast to coast.

Opponents of the Proof of Citizenship bill railed against it as flawed in its purpose and its design. They said there would be no real oversight on the secretary’s review of voter registration records and that, more significantly, the legislation proposed a solution to a problem that they believed Gessler had failed to persuade existed.

The fact that Gessler never produced substantial clear-cut evidence that the kind of voter fraud he was alleging had occurred bolstered the views of skeptical lawmakers that his claims did not justify putting in place a major new election law that could work to throw legitimate voters off the rolls, even if the new powers granted to the secretary’s office were not abused.

Asked by the Colorado Independent to examine the bill last year, Estelle Rogers, director of advocacy for Project Vote, said the bill should surely be rewritten or opposed.

“This does not appear to be a usual proof of citizenship bill,” she wrote in an email. “Instead it purports to allow ongoing questioning of one’s citizenship once a registrant is already on the rolls, setting up a class of voters who are, in effect, constantly ‘on probation’ because the secretary of state has ‘reason to believe’ they are not citizens.

“The secretary says he is ‘certain’ that 106 people on Colorado’s voter roll of 3.7 million are ‘improperly registered.’ That’s about 0.0028648648649 percent of the voter roll. Obviously such an error rate is to be expected whenever human beings are copying data from one list to another. Before the secretary of state jumps to the conclusion that these are 106 cases of voter fraud, he should have a lot more evidence than mere suspicion. Non-citizen voting is a fashionable political theme these days, but it has no basis in reality. And the right to vote is too important to confuse with sloganeering.”

Gessler recently announced he was seeking to loosen rules governing the use of electronic voting machines in the state, raising eyebrows again, given the dismal record of e-voting machine reliability over the last decade in the United States.