President Donald Trump might have abruptly scrapped his controversial voter fraud commission Wednesday, but there’s no telling what lasting impact its short lifespan might have on Colorado.
Last June and July here, 3,189 voters voluntarily withdrew their registration during a two-week firestorm following news that Colorado would send the personal information of all voters to that newly minted Trump task force.
Since then, only 1,413 of those voters— or just under half— have come back on the rolls, according to data provided by the Secretary of State’s Office.
To be sure, not all of those voters who unregistered might have done so to keep their information from Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a panel ostensibly created to investigate claims of voter fraud. Some voters might have moved out of state or withdrew their registration for other reasons.
But as a dizzying two-week news cycle last year whirled around Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, who pledged to provide the personal, publicly available information of all Colorado voters to the Trump task force, election officials across the state said voters were flooding county phone lines and writing with concerns about their information potentially heading into the hands of Trump officials and inquiring about what they could do to stop it.
The voter commission’s co-chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, had asked all states to furnish their voter files, including the names, addresses, party affiliations and voting history of all voters in Colorado. But if voters here unregistered before Williams sent off the 2017 voter file, they were told their information wouldn’t go to the commission. Williams sent the data to the federal task force on Aug. 1, saying because of the state’s open records laws he had to give up any publicly available information to the commission just as he would if anyone asked.
The drama that unfolded lasted weeks.
Voters registered their discontent at local election offices from Denver to Mesa. Thousands unregistered, and hundreds moved to make their public voting records confidential by signing affidavits saying they feared for their safety.
In July, Matt Crane, who heads up the elections office in Arapahoe County, told The Colorado Independent, “From what we hear … they don’t want their information to be a part of the commission’s work.”
Six months later, on Wednesday, Jan. 3, Trump, who made the unsubstantiated claim that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election he won, said he was shutting down his task force because 44 states refused to participate and it was getting bogged down in lawsuits.
From day one, voting rights and civil liberties groups accused the commission of being a sham panel built on a false narrative of widespread voter fraud in a country where cases of in-person voter fraud are extremely rare. Their worst fear was that the commission’s endgame would encourage voter suppression with new laws like the ones requiring IDs that began popping up in Republican state legislatures after the election of Barack Obama as president.
As Americans, you need identification, sometimes in a very strong and accurate form, for almost everything you do…..except when it comes to the most important thing, VOTING for the people that run your country. Push hard for Voter Identification!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018
Privacy-rights groups sued the commission, and even one of its own members successfully sued it, too. Maine’s Democratic secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, said in a federal legal complaint that he wasn’t able to review commission documents and was being stonewalled about what the very task force he sat on was actually doing.
In a statement this week, Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who has previously called for the commission to be disbanded, ripped the task force as a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition aimed at validating the president’s conspiracy theories” about voter fraud.
“Thousands of Coloradans canceled their registrations because they knew that the President’s voter fraud commission lacked any objectivity or credibility,” he said.
In the wake of the mass cast off last year, Colorado Secretary of State Williams and other local elections officials urged voters who voluntarily ditched their franchise to come back into the fold.
Last time we checked in on the numbers to see how many had come back on the rolls was Sept. 17 of last year. By then, 6,648 Coloradans, most of them Democrats, had unregistered since news of the Trump task force broke. In that time, only 531 had re-registered. According to data from the Secretary of State, in the three-and-a-half-months since Sept. 17, another 3,503 voters unregistered, showing just how notable that two-week spike in withdraws was around June and July of last year when around the same number of voters lept from the rolls.
One of the Democratic voters who unregistered after learning about Trump’s voter fraud task force is Bob Bair, a retired school principal who has served as an election judge in the Denver area since 2008. He told The Colorado Independent at the time that he and his wife Connie didn’t trust the Trump administration with their personal information.
But they both came back on the rolls just prior to the November 2017 elections.
“I don’t like to miss elections or be bullied around by people like Trump trying to appeal to his red-meat base,” Bair said this week. “Both my wife and I signed up again in mid-October and both voted, and we are currently on the rolls again.”
Rene Loy, who runs elections in Delta County, recalled a similar story this week about an elderly and avid voter whom she recalls dropping by the county office in late June, saying she wanted to take her name off the rolls.
“She told me point blank when she was withdrawing that she was doing it to prove a point, and I let her know that I wouldn’t be mailing her a mail ballot if I canceled her,” Loy says about it now. “And she said, ‘That’s all right, I’ll be back in and I’ll reregister when the time is right.’”
Sure enough, Loy says, the woman came back shortly before the November elections and re-registered.
Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, points out that Colorado often sets records for its voter turnout and participation.
“We have long hoped that those voters who withdrew would sign back up,” she says. “Monday is an extremely important deadline for Coloradans who did withdraw because in order to participate in either the Republican or Democratic caucus on March 6 they must be registered with the party by midnight.”