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John Hickenlooper: Scott Gessler may be intimidating Colorado voters

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Governor John Hickenlooper joined the Obama campaign yesterday to rally voters to support the president.

In addition to expressing his worries about a possible Mitt Romney presidency, the governor told us he is also concerned that another Republican official, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, may be intimidating some Colorado residents who can and should be voting.

Hickenlooper and State Representative Crisanta Duran rallied supporters in the Obama campaign's 9th Avenue field office in Denver a week after the president's shaky debate performance against Mitt Romney at the University of Denver and the day before today's deadline for Coloradans to register to vote.

Gessler, who has battled accusations of voter intimidation and suppression, first came up in Duran's speech, when she introduced Hickenlooper.

"What we have seen in Colorado and across the country is an effort to make it more difficult for legally registered voters to have access to the ballots," Duran told a crowd of Obama volunteers. "We've seen Secretary Gessler put in last-minute rules and changes to affect this election.... We know that we need to take the light of democracy to every neighborhood in Denver and every neighborhood in Colorado to give people the right to make sure...that they have their voice heard in this very important election."

The governor did not mention Gessler in his speech, which was mostly focused on Obama's compassion as an individual. But we followed up with him after, asking if voter suppression in the state was a concern for him.

Continue to read John Hickenlooper's comments about Scott Gessler. "I want everybody to vote -- Republicans and Democrats. We are the original experiment in democracy.... I want to start a movement called, 'I gotta vote!' I want everybody to really realize that they have to vote...to drive them to action," he said. "But I don't think Scott Gessler has hurt or suppressed [voters]."

But has he made it harder for people to vote as some of his opponents have repeatedly suggested?

"I think he has for certain people -- without question.... It's easy for us to say everyone should vote," Hickenlooper said, adding that he has a friend who is 42 years old, and who has never voted. "I'm not proud of this.... He just never got around to it, was busy. And so these people who never voted before, just a little bit of confusion, they're easily intimidated. We want to make it easy for people to vote, not harder."

Gessler has faced criticism for sending letters to thousands of registered voters asking them to prove they are citizens. He has defended this effort by saying that he wants to make it easy for people to vote and tough for them to cheat. He's also pointed to the major state-wide registration initiative his office recently launched -- an effort that also faced a fair amount of backlash.

"He has kind of muddied the water," Hickenlooper continued. "If people are diffident and cautious -- now, they shouldn't be. And he would say, 'These people should be dying to vote,' and I agree, but they aren't.... It's like going swimming, going in the pool. You wanna put your toe in it. If they've never experienced voting and democracy -- those of us, we take it for granted. Some people, they are intimidated -- immigrants who just registered. They've got their citizen papers. They've never done this before."

Does he think that Gessler has partisan motivations in these efforts?

"I wouldn't go that far," Hickenlooper said. "I think that Secretary Gessler really thinks in his mind that he's doing the right thing, that he's trying to make sure that the only people that vote are citizens. But I do think that there's a risk.... He and I agree on this. I think only people that have the right to vote should be voting.... But if that process, if you end up scaring more people away than rooting out [illegal voters]. And we haven't found very many people, hardly anyone, who actually has voted when they shouldn't have. So it might be much ado about nothing."

More from our Politics archive: "Strategic Allied Consulting: Voter-registration firm ex-employee being investigated in Colorado"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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