Scott Gessler: Inside Colorado's charges and prosecutions of voter fraud

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This week's cover story on Scott Gessler delves into two of the Republican Secretary of State's biggest controversies -- allegations that he misused public dollars for partisan travels and accusations that he has suppressed voters. Gessler earned the latter criticisms for his initiatives to prevent voter fraud, and for our story, we researched the extent to which these crimes have been committed and prosecuted. Here, we take a closer look at the small number of actual voter fraud cases in Colorado.

As we outlined in our feature, Gessler, prior to his criminal and ethics allegations, received most of his attention for efforts to identify and remove non-citizens from the voter rolls. Gessler and his staff have repeatedly argued that there are loopholes in the state's registration system. They believe it's easy for non-citizens to end up on the rolls, and if they do end up voting -- and Gessler is confident that at least a dozen have -- they are breaking the law.

To test the theory of some voter groups, which argue that Gessler has blown the alleged fraud problem out of proportion, we contacted Jessica Zender, a policy analyst with the Colorado Judicial Branch's Division of Planning and Analysis. She ran a check on all cases from 2002 through December of last year that involve violations of state statutes that cover voter fraud.

In her search, she found a total of 39 different cases during that time frame, involving 48 different charges (since some cases involved multiple allegations). Of those, sixteen actually led to convictions. Fourteen individuals were found guilty and the other two involved deferred sentences.

The remaining charges were likely dismissed. Zender tells us it's possible the cases could be ongoing, but it seems unlikely, since most of the charges were filed before 2011. In fact, all but ten of the 48 charges were filed before 2010, prior to when Gessler became Secretary of State.

To get a more localized perspective on the scope of fraud cases, we also checked in with Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson and Denver Elections Division -- and officials there told us that they could recall only two cases in Denver since 2005 that involved prosecution.

One involved a voter registration drive in which election officials observed suspicious patterns with signatures. The other dealt with a voter who cast a ballot in the name of his mother, who had died.

Denver officials also note that they regularly refer names to the District Attorney's office, most often when they observe signature discrepancies in mail ballots and voters don't respond to their requests to resolve those discrepancies.

For example, in 2010 primary, 527 names were sent to the DA's office and in the general election that year, 477 names were passed along. In 2011, that number was 479, and in the 2012 primary, 287 were submitted.

This appears to be a routine process related to signature verification; it has not generally led to charges or prosecutions.

Continue for more details on the statewide statistics and the full list of voter fraud cases and prosecutions since 2002. In the statewide stats from Zender, we see a couple of patterns, but since the numbers are relatively small, there's nothing definitive.

Since 2002, there have been fifteen charges of voting twice, fourteen allegations of "interfering with the distribution of materials," six cases of "procuring false registration," four charges of "personating [an] elector" (sic) and several other miscellaneous alleged violations.

Of the sixteen actual convictions, eight were for voting twice, three for personating (sic) an elector, and the rest varied (full details below).

Gessler and his staff argue that these small numbers and the even fewer number of convictions are a sign that there are not good systems in place to detect and prosecute fraud. They have clear evidence of people who intentionally or accidentally break the law when it comes to elections, they maintain. For example, Gessler often cites cases of six individuals in 2010 who voted in both Colorado and Kansas -- and laments that they didn't face any serious consequences.

Gessler's critics, however, say that in general, such issues are small problems that don't deserve as much attention as he gives them -- especially when the search for fraud has the potential to intimidate or suppress legitimate voters.

At the legislature, which began its new session yesterday, new efforts to combat fraud are likely to surface -- some directly from the Secretary of State's office.

Here's a full list of the cases since 2002 and the specific charges.

Voter fraud cases

And here's a separate list that includes only the cases that led to actual convictions. ("FFGY" means "found guilty" and "FDFS" means individuals were given a "deferred sentence.")

Voter fraud convictions

More from our Politics archive: "Fiscal cliff deal: "Borrowing is economic cocaine," says Dick Lamm"

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

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