At the Capitol yesterday, Secretary of State Scott Gessler had lots to discuss at a State Affairs briefing -- but only a few minutes into his presentation, he was interrupted by critical questions from lawmakers. The immediate criticisms, which were put on hold until after he finished his prepared remarks, set the tone for a contentious meeting -- kicking off what will also likely be a controversial legislative session for Gessler.
Mainly, the critical legislators wanted to know why Gessler had been so focused on finding illegally registered immigrants and if any voters were disenfranchised due to technical problems at his office.
Some of these concerns raised by the House and Senate legislators in attendance were discussed at length in our recent cover profile of Gessler, a Republican official who has gotten an unusual amount of attention in the chief election officer position.
His annual briefing, a prepared version of which is on view below, covered what Gessler argues are his biggest successes since he took office as the head of the State Department, which oversees elections and business and licensing. ("We work to serve the American Dream," Gessler said, in explaining his office's purview to the committee).
But an immediate grilling from several lawmakers interrupted his lengthy list of accomplishments, including improvements in his information technology division, increased security of his office's data, lowered business filing fees and cleaner and more accurate voter rolls.
Just after he touted the fact that the Secretary of State website last year had 9.7 million unique visitors last year, Senator Evie Hudak, a Democrat, asked the first question of the day.
"Secretary Gessler, you talked about your website. But it crashed a number of times, including the last day of registration," she said. "And as a result, about...800 voters who thought they were registered didn't get registered. What are you doing to solve those problems?"
Hudak, it seems, was combining two different problems in her question. A glitch with the Secretary of State's mobile-optimized website meant that for eleven days in September, anyone who registered through that option didn't actually have their registration recorded. There was close to 800 of them and the Secretary of State's office, which fixed the problem after the eleven-day period, had no way of identifying or contacting them. At the same time, the election website crashed on the final day of registration due to large volume of people visiting the site at the last-minute. In this case, individuals might have had trouble getting through (until his staff added additional servers), but there wouldn't have been confusion around whether their registrations were recorded or not, since the site just wasn't working at certain points.
Gessler responded, "The problems were already solved on those days," before explaining at length the two challenges.
"We did have two glitches, and I'll call them glitches, because when you look at it, [we had a great deal] of successes using online voter registration," he said, later adding, "The capabilities people had this year were far beyond what they ever had before."
He said, "We were pretty aggressively able to resolve those issues."
Senator Angela Giron, a Democrat and chair of the committee, continued questioning Gessler on the matter, saying, "Each one...of those, it's important that they were able to register. Were you able to track that and see if any of those people we lost were able to vote?"
Gessler explained that there was no way for his office to actually find those voters, since their registrations weren't recorded, but noted that there was an emergency rule in place such that anyone who may have been affected by the glitch could vote provisionally on Election Day -- if they did register during that timeframe on the mobile-optimized site and showed up to vote and weren't listed.
"I'm not sure I'm convinced," Giron said, noting that election judges at polling sites might not have let those individuals vote, even if they explained the situation.
"If they were able to read and if they read the instructions and applied to them, then there shouldn't have been a problem," Gessler responded.
"If the election judges let them," Giron said.
After another lawmaker asked him about his strained relationship with county clerks -- which the Secretary said was not accurate -- Gessler asked if he could go back to his presentation and then take questions afterward.
Giron said that would be fine.
In his lengthy presentation, Gessler read off testimonials from random Coloradans about how some of the Secretary of State's initiatives have helped them -- nonprofit leaders happy with fee reductions, voters pleased with the ease of casting ballots from abroad and more.
Of note, Gessler said that he has been in regular contact with Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, who he had sued over her efforts to mail ballots to voters who skipped the last election and were thus labeled as "inactive." It's one of the debates that has earned Gessler criticisms that he is working to suppress legitimate voters. Gessler told the committee he has been discussing a middle-ground solution to this problem and that lawmakers can expect a bill related to this problem later this session.
He also said in efforts to identify voters who cast ballots across state lines, that his office has found multiple voters in Kansas and Arizona and is investigating leads in other states as well.
In addition to further questioning about website glitches, Gessler spent a large part of the follow-up questions after his presentation responding to criticisms around his non-citizen efforts, which we outlined in detail in print.
In short, he has worked to prevent fraud by finding non-citizens illegally on the voter rolls through cross-checks with databases -- and while his efforts have resulted in hundreds of immigrants being removed from the voter rolls, many more that he flagged were ultimately found to be legal citizens.
Gessler briefly discussed the first bill he is pushing this session, which we reported on last week and would give his office direct access to remove non-citizens.
Representative Joe Salazar went after Gessler for using questionable immigration data. "You use a program that is inherently unreliable," Salazar said, asking how that preserves election integrity. "Can you explain that paradox?"
"To be sure, no database is perfect," Gessler said in response, but added that the federal records he has referenced for the project are used in every state across the country in many different ways.
"It was not a threatening letter," he also said in response to another question about possible negative impacts of his efforts to ask non-citizens to remove themselves from the rolls.
For the most part, Gessler didn't say anything new in response to accusations of intimidating legal voters, but when asked what kind of resources his office has devoted to finding non-citizens, he, for the first time, gave a specific answer. (In the past, and when we asked him this question for our print feature, he said he couldn't offer a dollar figure).
The total amount spent on the entire "non-citizens project," he said, was around $8,000.
Here's a draft version of Gessler's prepared remarks, sent to us by his staff.
Here's a supplemental document he provided to illustrate the problem of non-citizen voters.
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