DENVER – A struggle between Democrats and the state’s top elections official intensified Wednesday, with Democrats warning that Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s actions risk a return of voting abuses seen in the civil rights era.
Gessler, meanwhile, unveiled the results of his voter-registration campaign, which has put nearly 400,000 more Coloradans on the voter rolls since the 2008 election.
Democrats have had many bones to pick with Gessler since he took office nearly two years ago.
He fined the Larimer County Republican Party but then helped the group raise money to pay off the fine. He attended the Republican National Convention as a supporter of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And he sent letters to thousands of registered voters, challenging their citizenship status. The effort found 35 noncitizens who had voted out of more than 3 million registered voters.
“We’ve seen enough of his shenanigans,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.
Levy took issue with Gessler’s latest action, which was an “informal guidance” memo about the role of poll watchers – the usually partisan activists who monitor polling places. Gessler’s advice would let poll watchers intimidate voters, Levy said.
“A poll watcher can literally breathe down the neck of a voter,” Levy said. “It shouldn’t take an act of courage for a citizen of Colorado to exercise his or her right to vote. This is not the Deep South in the 1960s.”
Levy said she and Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, would sponsor a bill in early 2013 to clearly outline the secretary of state’s authority to make rules and give unsolicited advice to county clerks.
Gessler, though, said his advice was targeted to poll watchers who keep an eye on the counting of mail ballots, and in any case, state law requires poll watchers to stay at least 6 feet away from voting booths.
Meanwhile, Gessler released the results of his office’s voter-registration advertising campaign, as well as the performance of his online voter-registration system.
Despite website outages Tuesday, the last day to register, Gessler said the system was a “spectacular success.” Nearly 250,000 Coloradans updated their registrations or registered for the first time online, he said.
Registration numbers grew about 10 percent since the 2008 election, faster than the state’s population.
“I think what contributed to this is the secretary of state spent $1 million in targeted ads to encourage people to register to vote, and the secretary of state’s office made it incredibly easy to register to vote online,” Gessler said.
Money for the ad campaign came from the federal government.