Pre-election news coverage about Secretary of State Scott Gessler often focused on his efforts to weed out non-citizen voters and prevent fraud through an initiative some activists called a wild goose chase. But at an event in Arapahoe County, where Gessler invited public feedback, most took the opposite stance: Election officials haven't done enough to prevent fraud, which, the voters said, was out of control on November 6.
These public comments were made at a stop in Centennial -- part of Gessler's "election integrity listening tour," in which the Secretary of State and his staff are holding open hearings throughout the state at which anyone from the public can offer their thoughts directly to the state's chief election officer.
Yesterday morning, Gessler stopped in Boulder, where a lot of the discussion involved ongoing confusion surrounding the uncertified results there, before spending the afternoon at the South Metro Chamber of Commerce in Arapahoe County at an event attended by about thirty people.
At that second gathering, several individuals criticized Gessler for making it harder for people to vote, with one individual lamenting a controversial rule by which permanent mail-in voters become "inactive" and don't get sent ballots if they miss an election.
But a large majority of the public commenters expressed concerns relating to fraud, complaining about fishy activities they said they saw on election day, as well as the perceived lack of punishment and consequences for those who commit voter fraud.
The tone at the event made it clear that while Gessler has faced a lot of pressure to back off his efforts to eliminate non-citizen voters -- a project that critics say intimidates legal voters -- there's also a constituency that would like to see him and other election officials do a whole lot more to stop fraud, and identify and punish those who commit it.
The debate around immigrants illegally voting -- with Gessler saying he is trying to clean up the voter rolls and his opponents arguing that the potential for non-citizen votes is extremely limited -- was only one topic mentioned at the hearing.
"If you're not American, you shouldn't vote," said Aurora's Steven Haworth during the public comment period. "I think you need to purge those voters."
Haworth said he was a precinct leader and made calls in support of Mitt Romney -- and he encountered registered voters who he said told him they were not citizens.
In regard to voters who have become "inactive" because they didn't vote last election, he added, "If you're not willing enough to make sure your election status is active...then you should be purged."
Gessler also heard a lot of questions about mail-in ballots potentially being intercepted, with some worrying about individuals they observed dropping off piles of mail ballots in bulk -- a red flag for fraud, they say. Several also raised questions about busloads of people going to polling sites, suggesting that tactics could be helping people to vote twice or clog up lines at vote centers to stop legitimate voters.
Continue for more comments from the Scott Gessler event. Others in Arapahoe complained about volunteers on site who were allegedly breaking rules and confusing or intimidating voters.
"I can't believe the number of issues that need to be resolved," said Mitch Page in his public comments. He noted that his wife dragged him to the event, but he was shocked to hear so many people had observed questionable actions.
"For voter fraud, what are the consequences?" he asked.
"Nothing!" someone in the crowd shouted back.
Gessler explained that there are a range of consequences, from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the kind of fraud committed. But he also noted that he was not pleased in 2010 when six people who had voted in Colorado and in other states weren't seriously prosecuted.
Kevin Cullis, another voter in attendance, said he would like to see stricter voter ID laws in Colorado as one way to curb fraud. (These kinds of laws in other states have been met with accusations of organized voter suppression).
"It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative, I just want the right thing to happen," he said. "Or we'll become a third-world country."
It is in both parties interests to ensure that everyone voting has a right to do so and isn't able to cheat the system by voting twice, he argued, adding, "I'm less confident in the process, which means I don't trust my politicians. I don't trust my government."
In her comments, Joy Hoffman, chair of the Arapahoe Republican Party, said she observed all kinds of intimidation and potential opportunities for fraud.
"It was very easy to do something that was less than honest," she said, adding, "It was hideous out there."
Some at the hearing asked Gessler to do more to prevent fraud, while others directed their concerns at specific county clerks and recorders or law enforcement officials who they think were uninformed and did little to stop and prosecute those committing fraud.
Hoffman told us afterward, "Feeling such a lack of respect for the process was incredibly saddening."
She said it's not always clear what responsibility Gessler has versus the authority of the county clerks' offices to address possible fraudulent actions.
"He's tried very, very hard," she said of Gessler, later adding, "If people vote who shouldn't vote, it devalues your vote as much as my vote."
No matter how big or small the problem is, she said, anti-fraud initiatives need to be proactive.
"The question is, do you root out fraud before it happens, or do you play catchup?" she said.
Gessler didn't say too much during the meeting, mostly just offering brief comments and taking notes. At one point, when urged to do more to remove illegal voters from the rolls, he said, "It's one I've spent some time on," adding that there's "lots of controversy around that."
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In short closing remarks, he said, "We're all trying to work in good faith and make this system as good as possible."
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