Scott Gessler to share conservative voter-fraud panel with controversial True the Vote group

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Secretary of State Scott Gessler likes to say that it should be easy to vote and tough to cheat, but his critics argue that he is a lot more focused on the latter -- especially when it comes to voters who aren't Republican.

While Gessler has tried to disprove those accusations, his appearance this week at a conservative voter-fraud panel is not doing much to appease critics.

And it's made worse by the fact that he will be speaking alongside a representative of a controversial organization called True the Vote, recently profiled by the New York Times.

Ellen Dumm, the founder of Campaign for a Strong Colorado, a coalition of nonprofits, alerted us to the schedule of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Denver on Thursday. That event, a day after the first presidential debate, includes a panel called "Stealing Elections: What the Left Doesn't Want You to Know About Voter Fraud," where Gessler will be speaking alongside Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote.

This appearance comes after Gessler, a Republican, has faced months of criticism, mainly tied to an effort to weed out non-citizen voters , which ultimately resulted in very few individuals actually being removed from the voter rolls.

As the Secretary of State, Gessler should be devoted to encouraging people to vote, his critics argue. But even when he has launched efforts specifically dedicated to improving registration, he has still faced criticism for potentially intimidating voters. This frustration with Gessler was further fueled when his office announced that a technical glitch last week resulted in hundreds of voters who thought they were registered not actually making it into the system.

"He's been the most partisan secretary of state since he took office, and he hasn't been shy about it," Dumm says. "It's not a surprise [that he's attending the CPAC panel], but you think this close to the election, he'd try to avoid...even the appearance of partisanship. But clearly he doesn't care."

Gessler has repeatedly responded to these kinds of criticisms by calling them partisan attacks on his office.

True the Vote, the conservative group on the panel with Gessler, is targeting registration in swing states to scrutinize the validity of registered voters, the Times reported. These efforts to eliminate fraud have faced a lot of backlash from voter-rights groups, and the Justice Department reports that there have been very few cases of widespread fraud.

Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Gessler, tells us that the secretary of state attends a wide range of events across the political spectrum.

"The secretary is open to meeting with lots of different kinds of groups," Coolidge says, noting that Gessler appeared on a campaign finance reform panel this morning hosted by Common Cause, an advocacy group that has clashed with Gessler in the past.

Gessler has also met with the League of Women Voters, Coolidge says.

"He meets with a broad selection of groups and obviously doesn't get beat up when he meets with left-wing groups," he says.

And does Gessler support True the Vote?

"The secretary is a big advocate of people engaging in the process, and True the Vote has shown an interest in...participating and...being poll watchers...and other roles as part of our Democratic process," says Coolidge. "He supports people getting involved and supports people civically engaging in our democracy."

Still, Dumm says, his efforts are alarming.

"It's the public trust you're dealing with when you are talking about the secretary of state," she says. "He needs to be...sure he is nonpartisan when it comes to conducting elections, and that is not what he's doing."

She adds, "No one should trust him."

More from our Politics archive: "Debate 2012: Ten signs the presidential debate is coming to Denver"

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

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