Scott Gessler registration drive errors cause confusion, more voter suppression claims
This is not quite how Scott Gessler's plan was supposed to go.
When Colorado's Secretary of State announced an unprecedented voter registration initiative last month, he told reporters that the effort wasn't a direct response to criticisms of voter suppression, though he said it would hopefully disprove accusations that he is intimidating voters. But now, some county clerks and voters are saying errors in mailers sent out through the registration campaign are causing more harm than good.
This latest problem for Gessler, a Republican, is bringing some negative attention to an $850,000 effort aimed explicitly at getting more voters across the state to register -- something that the Secretary of State's critics frequently argue should be his priority. That campaign includes television, radio, print and online ads in English and Spanish, and also includes hundreds of thousands of mailers encouraging people to register before the October 9 deadline.
At the press conference unveiling this initiative, Gessler said: "This is the largest voter registration effort in the history of Colorado and, to my knowledge, this is the largest registration effort in the history of any state anywhere in the country."
He added, "We want people to participate in our political process."
At the time, it was definitely a change of tone from recent press releases from his office, many of them focused on an effort to identify immigrant voters who may be illegally registered. Watchdog groups said this initiative was based on potentially inaccurate information and might discourage legal voters from going to the polls.
At the news conference, Gessler explained that his office would be sending mailings to roughly 961,000 people who they believed were eligible to vote, but not registered. That would translate to about 751,000 postcards total, since staffers would send only one per household. The mailing program has been in the works for about a year, he said, noting that his office got special authorization from the state legislature to spend funds on the initiative.
He also explained that a test run of the mailers had already been sent more would be sent in the coming days and weeks.
Then, last week, Westword got a call from eighty-year-old Alfonso Rios, an upset voter who received one of the mailers despite being registered.
The Secretary of State's office sent us this template of the postcard.
Courtesy of Rich Coolidge
Why was Rios so upset? Because, he said, he has been voting for decades and has always been registered. He even voted in a recent primary. So it was alarming to him when he saw a mailer saying he was eligible, but not registered.
"It's kind of frightening thing," says Rios, who lives in Thorton and is retired. "It pissed me off.... What the hell are they talking about I'm not registered to vote? If I'm not registered, I'd sure as hell like to no why."
Scott Gessler, standing in front of images that are being used in the registration campaign.
Around this time, Westword got a tip from a government official, who forwarded an e-mail from the Secretary of State's office to county officials throughout the state, explaining that there have been some errors with the mailings. For one thing, the e-mail conceded that thousands of registered voters may have gotten postcards saying they are not.
The e-mail, dated September 6 and sent a few days after the initial press conference, refers to problems with the data used to identify eligible voters who aren't registered. The information comes from the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, database, which is associated with a larger multi-state effort by the Pew Center on the States to improve the accuracy of voter rolls across the country.
The lengthy e-mail, from Christi McElveen in the Elections Division, explains the flaws. Part of her message says:
Unfortunately, our vendor incorrectly sent approximately 75,000 cards last weekend to potential voters in certain counties. Those counties reported an unexpectedly high number of people who received a card but were already registered voters.
According to the e-mail, the counties that inadvertently received mailings, based on information that contained potentials errors, were Adams, Alamosa, Arapahoe, Archuleta, Baca, Bent, Boulder, Broomfield, Chaffee, Cheyenne, Clear Creek, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Delta, Denver, Dolores, Douglas, Eagle and El Paso counties.
Andrew Cole, a spokesman for Gessler, explains to us that this was a data glitch and emphasizes that this is all part of a large effort to encourage voters. The errors, he says, should in no way discourage voters and won't affect those who are registered.
He says the batch of 75,000 referenced in the e-mail were sent out in error. Of those, the Secretary of State's office believes that about 10 percent, or roughly 7,000, went to registered voters. The problem has to do with inconsistencies in how individuals' names might appear on the Department of Motor Vehicles database versus voter rolls. If one version had an initial that didn't appear in the other database, for example, the resident might be flagged as not registered even if they are.
The search algorithm used in this case was not set up to identify this kind of discrepancy between how someone's name was listed in the two databases, Cole says.
"No data matching system is going to be perfect," says Cole. "We wanted to err on the side of being more inclusive."
The only problem is that the language of the postcards -- explicitly stating that the records show the recipient is not registered -- has caused a fair amount of confusion and frustration for voters who are registered and received the mailers.
Example of bilingual postcard template
Courtesy of Rich Coolidge
And he's not the only voter who has contacted that office with complaints about the postcards.
Long tells us that between phone calls, e-mails and visits like those from Rios, the Adams County Clerk's office has fielded around seventy inquiries as of earlier this week.
After all, the mailers do direct recipients to contact their county clerks.
"People have suggested to us they are discouraged about getting this mailer," she says. "It doesn't make them feel...[confident] that their voter registration is correct, but we assure them."
She adds, "They are saying, 'I am registered. I've been registered for a long time. I've lived in my house for fifty years. What am I getting this mailer?'"
Long says she is particularly frustrated that this is all happening weeks before the deadline to register and less than two months away from the November election.
"This is our very, very busy time," she says. "My staff has to...stop to answer the phone calls."
She says of Gessler's office, "I think they've learned some less from this.... They definitely had some glitches in this project, and it was ill-timed and too close to the election and registration cutoff."
Her main problem is with the language of the card. If they were just generic postcards encouraging individuals to register if they haven't already, then there would likely be a lot less confusion, she feels.
Rios says he thinks the mailers could actually stop people from voting.
"This is voter suppression," he says. "You don't get this any other year, and this year...he sends out this crap?"
He adds, "When somebody looks at them, they are not gonna register again. They are gonna give up."
Soon after the registration drive was announced, the Denver Post ran a story talking to another registered voter who received the mailing and was upset by it. Today, the Post also reports that former state Senate Majority Leader Norma Anderson, a Republican who has been voting for more than half a century, received an incorrect mailer, too.
This internal e-mail from the Secretary of State's office shows that the errors have impacted many counties throughout the state.
Cole, the spokesman for Gessler, says it's a simple database error and doesn't believe that this would any way stop voters.
"I understand people may be frustrated that they have to take that extra step," Cole says, "But at the end of the day, we wanted to be over-inclusive to reach out to more people.... It's frustrating that we are being criticized for reaching out to people to provide them information on how to register to vote."
Example of print ads associated with Gessler's voter registration campaign
He adds, "We want to make sure people who want to participate in the process have information."
He emphasizes that these are large data sets and that "no criteria is perfect."
But Adams County's Long says the situation is only exacerbated by the fact that voters are now starting to receive Voter Information Cards from their county clerks, which are sent in the mail and tell voters that they are registered. The cards give them specific information on where and how to vote, what districts they are in and more.
That means that some registered voters may be getting these Secretary of State postcards and the VIC information at the same time, with essentially opposite information, says Long.
"Now, the voter doesn't know who to believe," she says.
And as we've noted in our coverage of other complaints and full-blown lawsuits that Gessler is facing, the stakes are especially high, given how important Colorado is in the presidential race. With the whole country watching this key swing state, concerns about the process carry a lot of weight.
Rios says he just wants people to know that voters are being sent inaccurate information.
"I knew I was registered. I had no doubt in mind -- I know you didn't have to keep re-registering," he says. "I just wanted to get out there and say I was pretty upset about it."
From: State Election Division [mailto:State.ElectionDivision@SOS.STATE.CO.US] Sent: Thursday, September 06, 2012 8:59 AM To: State Election Division Subject: ERIC mailing information
We would like to share the following information with you regarding the upcoming ERIC mailing.
1. We had planned for ERIC postcards to be dropped in the mail to potential voters this Friday. Unfortunately, our vendor incorrectly sent approximately 75,000 cards last weekend to potential voters in certain counties. Those counties reported an unexpectedly high number of people who received a card but were already registered voters. We reviewed the information provided to us by ERIC and found that Pew had provided some incorrect data. The SOS contacted Pew to correct the error and we are currently reprinting the entire mailing list. We expect cards to be delivered to the remaining potential voters starting the middle of next week. We will not resend cards to individuals or households that have already received them.
2. Because cards were mailed in error to some counties, we will try to get those counties a list of people who are already registered and should not have received a card. This information will be provided to Adams, Alamosa, Arapahoe, Archuleta, Baca, Bent, Boulder, Broomfield, Chaffee, Cheyenne, Clear Creek, Conejos, Costilla, Crowley, Delta, Denver, Dolores, Douglas, Eagle, and El Paso Counties. These are the counties that had postcards inadvertently mailed early.
3. The SOS will make available on each county's FTP site the list of individuals and households that will be mailed to for their county. We hope to have this information to you by late today or early tomorrow. Because the information on the list of names may contain personal information that is protected, counties may not under any circumstances release this information to a third party.
4. We learned from the sample mailing in the summer that some people use different names for their driver's license and voter registration. While we strive to ensure the list of potential voters is properly reviewed, no match criteria is perfect. Individuals who use nicknames or initials, have changed their first or last name, who have recently moved, or have very common names, may received a postcard even if they are already registered to vote. We anticipate this number will be only a small percentage of the list of potential voters but counties should be prepared for these cases.
5. We have received requests to change several counties' contact information that will be printed on the back of the postcards. If you have corrections to the information you already provided, please e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon today, Thursday, September 6, 2012.
6. When we created the list of potential voters, the only means to identify which county a person lives in is to use zip code information. Some zip codes are shared between counties. We have implemented logic to determine which county has the higher number of voters in that zip code. The assigned county's contact information will be printed on the back of postcards delivered to all potential voters living in that zip code. We apologize for the inconvenience this may present to counties.
7. We will distribute ERIC contact list information to all counties this week so that you can direct potential voters to the right county if they have contacted you in error.
If you have questions about the ERIC mailing, please contact me.
Christi McElveen Colorado Department of State Elections Division -- Special Projects
More from our Politics archive: "Marijuana: Colorado Education Association opposing Amendment 64"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.