Michael Hancock: Scott Gessler's actions similar to nationwide voter-suppression efforts

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Even though Mayor Michael Hancock says he likes to give people the benefit of the doubt, he believes Secretary of State Scott Gessler's actions echo a concerted nationwide effort to suppress votes. The mayor weighed in on this topic last week, and while he declined to directly slam Gessler, he still came down hard on the controversial chief election officer, who has faced a steady stream of opposition in the final days before this year's election.

Two weeks before Election Day, Gessler, a Republican, continues to fight off criticism for his effort to weed out illegal immigrant voters, which has resulted in very few registered voters actually being removed from the voter rolls. Gessler has faced a wide range of accusations in recent months, with some watchdog groups arguing that his priorities are all wrong, given that he should be focused on registering voters and not on what appears to be a wild goose chase against fraud that may be discouraging new citizens from voting.

In addition, some civic groups have gone so far as to accuse Gessler of having an overt Republican agenda to intimidate and block residents who won't vote for Mitt Romney.

Gessler's office maintains that there is clear evidence of fraud, and stresses that his office has devoted a lot of resources to a very successful registration effort that helped register more Democrats than Republicans.

On the spectrum of criticism from Democratic officials, Hancock's comments were on the harsher end, although he did not directly accuse Gessler of actively participating in what he says is a national effort to intimidate and suppress voters.

Governor John Hickenlooper, a frequent Obama surrogate, recently told us that Gessler may be intimidating new citizens from voting, but said he doesn't think the Secretary of State is actively trying to stop non-Republicans from doing so.

During a roundtable with reporters last week, we asked Hancock if he disagrees with Gessler's efforts or is worried that some in Denver may be intimidated from voting because of the Secretary of State's work.

"Listen, the one thing that we do agree is that no one who should not vote... [should] vote in our state or in this nation," he said. "But let's just be clear: This is a very concerted effort to suppress the vote across this nation. The same things that Gessler argues, we've seen in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana. It is a very calculated, coordinated effort to suppress the vote, and it's unfortunate. Instead of trying to scare people away from the ballot, I believe our job as public servants is to encourage political participation by folks and make sure you have those measures in place to encourage, but also to filter out those who shouldn't be voting.

"Immigrants, more than anything, know that their very objective and goal to become citizens is permanently damaged by registering to vote," he added, "and what we ought to do is be educating and making sure we re-educate and continuing to educate those folks who work in our public offices, who register people for licenses and registering to vote, that they know exactly what to say to immigrants that are coming to them for services...to protect the immigrants as well as to protect the integrity of [elections]."

Recently, Gessler's office shared letters showing that some immigrants apparently did not realize they weren't supposed to vote -- something the Secretary of State believes justifies his anti-fraud efforts.

Asked if he think Gessler has partisan motives, Hancock replied, "Let me just say, it is very close to what we've seen as a coordinated effort to suppress the vote across the nation. And it is bothersome coming from the State of Colorado. It is my hope that...he is not a part of the agenda to suppress the vote. And I'm always gonna give people the benefit of the doubt."

Hancock also praises Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, a Democrat who has frequently clashed with Gessler's office, saying, "I stood with her and offered her any support from my office and the city attorney's office to push back any effort to suppress the vote or to roll people off of ballots."

The mayor's comments come on the heels of concerns nationwide and in Colorado that there may be Republican-affiliated groups engaged in fraudulent activity to thwart Democratic voters. Likewise, Gessler is also under scrutiny for allegedly misusing public funds for political purposes.

Rich Coolidge, Gessler's spokesman -- who offered us a lengthy and colorful response to some harsh criticisms last week -- tells us that the Secretary of State's office is disheartened Hancock has taken this position.

"There are almost 70,000 more voters in Denver now than there were in 2008. That's a 14 percent increase," Coolidge says. "We are disappointed that he is playing into the partisan politics of the day instead of looking at the facts of the largest voter registration drive in Colorado history -- and a big part of that was centered in the Denver media market."

Asked if he had any additional comments on Hancock, Coolidge said, "We'll stay out of the partisan divide."

More from our Politics archive: "Gary Johnson wants to "shout from the rooftops" that Colorado can change the world"

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

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