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Scott Gessler: Ten politicos weigh in on Secretary of State's first years in office

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We recently profiled Colorado's Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has received a great deal of attention due to allegations of corruption and accusations that he has suppressed voters.

In our reporting, we got perspectives from many local politicians and elected officials on Gessler's first years in office. Below is commentary from ten of them.

Gessler, a Republican and the state's chief election officer, has garnered perhaps the most controversy for his anti-fraud project aimed at identifying and removing immigrants who are illegally registered on the state's voter rolls. His critics -- who will be fighting back against new proposed legislation that would make it easier for him to remove non-citizen voters -- argue that it's been a waste of time and an effort that's intimidated legitimate voters.

Gessler says there are still vulnerabilities in the system. However, he feels he's made the voter rolls cleaner and more accurate than ever -- while also making it easier for people to vote.

Aside from the latest controversy surrounding the ongoing investigation into the Secretary's spending -- Gessler has always said he is innocent -- he also faced criticisms for his fights with county clerks. Most notably, he has sued Denver for trying to send mail ballots to "inactive" voters who missed the most recent election. Denver and some other counties argue that these voters are registered and deserve to receive ballots in the mail, while Gessler believes such mailings are a violation of the law that increase the potential for fraud.

Here are comments from ten officials with a diverse range of opinions on these controversies.

Representative Pat Steadman, DemocratSteadman, a vocal Gessler critic, has requested an official state audit into his spending.

"It's disappointing that he wouldn't take care to be a good steward of public funds and to safeguard and preserve the public trust that's been placed in him by virtue of his office.... It's all shades of gray. What he's done is far more brazen...than how most elected officials would conduct themselves..... Does it cross the line into criminal and ethical [violations]? These are open questions.... An audit will get to the bottom of this.

"He's been one of the most partisan Secretaries of State...[Colorado] has ever had.... He certainly stands out.... It's one thing to have a partisan ideological agenda about how you do the job, but it's another thing to do it in a way that dampens public confidence in elected officials."

Representative Libby Szabo, RepublicanSzabo has pushed controversial photo ID bills, which Gessler has supported in the past.

"I believe any Secretary of State's role is to make sure that our voting system throughout the state has the utmost integrity and that it runs smoothly whether in early voting or on election day. I believe the divided government has hampered that.... I don't understand what the big deal is of showing an ID. You have to show your identification...to get on an airplane, to pretty much do anything.

"To [take steps] to change a system that has been around for a long, long time and hasn't had a whole lot of changes, I believe that takes a lot of courage," she says of Gessler's efforts to reform the voting system and prevent fraud. "To get in there and fight for what's right is something that we should all be doing as elected officials."

Of Gessler's opponents, she adds, "Instead of criticizing what he's doing, they sometimes criticize who he is and his motives.... It's not about the person of Scott Gessler. It's about doing what's right for the state of Colorado."

Continue for more commentary from Scott Gessler supporters and critics. Ken Gordon, Democrat Gordon, a former state Senator, ran for Secretary of State and lost to Mike Coffman.

"He has prioritized what he calls 'integrity in elections,' by which he means there are non-citizens voting, which there is no evidence of.... I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that he believes it's a problem. But if it was a problem, somebody would've actually been able to show some evidence that it is. His priorities are misplaced." (Gessler's staff has shared its evidence with us in the past when arguing that the potential for fraud is serious).

"I would think that democracy works better when everybody participates, so the activities of the office should be to encourage people...and not to chase...issues that are unfounded.... It would appear he doesn't mind getting into fights.

"He's an intelligent person, so I am surprised he's focusing on this non-issue.... It's not just a waste of time.... It can have a chilling effect on people who are citizens who are entitled to vote."

Representative Chris Holbert, RepublicanHolbert is co-sponsoring a bill this session that would allow Gessler to directly remove non-citizen voters.

"I appreciate Secretary Gessler's resilience on this issue. I have experienced some criticism myself, but I know that the voters of my district, a vast majority of them, do support these efforts [to prevent fraud].... Secretary Gessler campaigned on the issue, and I think it is a rare thing in politics to find someone who makes specific promises and then stays diligent and keeps those promises...to the best of his ability.

"I stand by Secretary Gessler's effort to make...our voter records better and more efficient.... I know Scott to be a thoughtful and professional person and Secretary of State.... We are not out to accuse, we are out to make sure our government is working more efficiently and helping consumers and citizens and verifying that our voter records are as clean [as possible]."

Continue for more commentary from Scott Gessler supporters and critics. Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson, DemocratJohnson has fought Gessler on the subject of "inactive" voters, with the Secretary of State suing her office for sending mail ballots to voters who missed a recent election.

"To me, it goes back to the interpretation of inactive [voters].... I interpreted that I had the authority to send [ballots].... His is different than mine. He saw it differently than I did. The whole category of inactive...means you have missed voting in one general election. It doesn't mean you've done anything else besides not vote.

About non-citizen efforts, she says, "The Secretary of State can have his priorities.... I think the whole issue has been really overblown.... The biggest issue was the timing of it. Being so close to the election, having that type of attention to the matter made it confusing for everybody."

She adds, "I have a very good working relationship with the Secretary of State's office. I foresee that continuing."

Joy Hoffman, chair of the Arapahoe Republican Party Hoffman raised her concerns about voter fraud at a December hearing with the Secretary of State's office.

"Feeling such a lack of respect for the process was incredibly saddening.... The question is, what, by definition is [Gessler's] responsibility and what is the county's responsibility?... [Sometimes] to slam the Secretary of State is not fair.... He's tried very, very hard."

Of Gessler's non-citizen project, she says, "It's in my interest to have those people identified. It's in your interest, because if people vote who shouldn't vote, it devalues your vote as much as it devalues my vote... It needs to have integrity. It doesn't matter who the Secretary of State is.

"The question is, do you root out fraud before it happens, or do you play catchup?... Just because the election is over, doesn't mean that it's wrong to...pursue something that's wrong. To say that he's doing something evil or bad is not appropriate, because his job is to safeguard the integrity of the election. And it doesn't just happen the day of the election."

Continue for more commentary from Scott Gessler supporters and critics. Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz, DemocratOrtiz is the president of the Colorado County Clerks Association and has disagreed with Gessler on a range of election issues, forcing him into litigation.

"Pueblo County has never had a problem communicating with the Secretary of State's office. I think we communicate very well. I think they do a great job advising us, telling us what's happening. The disagreements that we've had over the last year and a half, they are disagreements that we believe the court should tell us what the answer is.... It's a normal and healthy relationship that the Secretary and the clerks should have.... [But] it has been very stressful, just because it's difficult going through these decisions through the courts. You have to prepare for it. You don't know what decision is going to be made. It's just a difficult process. But as an elected official, when I...disagree with the Secretary of State's office, I feel like I have to pursue them."

Donetta Davidson, Republican Davidson is a former Secretary of State and now the executive director of the County Clerks Association.

"The one thing that we were really concerned about is anything at the last minute like [the non-citizen letters] is very hard.... That's when you get the intimidation.... I might've sent them after the election instead of before. We didn't have time to investigate.

"The non-election year is the time to review election law, the time to review anything. This is the time to take a look at the issues. If there are changes....then it can really be tested and you have more time to implement it.... We need technology to make sure if there is any fraud at all, it can be verified. If there is fraud, people ought to...be punished. Sometimes punishment deters people."

Continue for more commentary from Scott Gessler supporters and critics. Michael Hancock, DemocratAs mayor of Denver, Hancock has been critical of Gessler and has generally supported Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson in her disagreements with the Secretary of State's office. (These comments are from an interview we published in October).

"The one thing that we do agree is that no one who should not vote... [should] vote in our state or in this nation. 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 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]."

"It is my hope that...[Gessler] is not a part of the agenda to suppress the vote. And I'm always gonna give people the benefit of the doubt."

Wendy Warner, Republican Warner is the chair of the Denver GOP and has been supportive of anti-fraud efforts.

"I like Scott Gessler.... When he ran for election, he said, 'You know, I want to set clear rules so that we can follow them,' as opposed to this namby-pamby thing that can be interpreted by whoever.... So let's set the rules and let's all follow the rules. I appreciate what he's doing and I agree with what he's done.

"Do we trust what's going on if we have illegal voters?... Think of the small [elections]... A lot of the local legislative races are won by under a hundred voters.... I think he's made a difference.... And we shouldn't be sending mail ballots to inactive voters, because I can give you examples...[of] people who died or moved away down to Florida...and all the sudden...those ballots, we've tracked them and they've gotten voted."

More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler grilled at Capitol about immigrant letters, website glitches"

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

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