Scott Gessler won't intimidate us on election day, Latino groups say

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Secretary of State Scott Gessler has a Republican agenda and is trying to prevent Latinos and new citizens from voting on election day. At least that's the charge from a group of left-leaning advocacy organizations working to get Hispanic voters to the polls in Colorado. Gessler's office, however, is pushing back against their criticisms, noting that his registration drive helped sign up more Democrats than Republicans.

Earlier this week, Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, made a stop in Colorado with advocacy group Mi Familia Vota and representatives from several social justice groups to discuss the upcoming elections, the importance of the Latino vote and how the issue of immigration fits into the campaigns this cycle. Much of the conversation focused on immigration and how a strong showing of Latino voters and new citizens at the polls this year will help build the foundation for comprehensive immigration reform in years to come.

But there was also a fair amount of dissent and anger surrounding the Republican Secretary of State, who has faced backlash in the months leading up to the election for his efforts to weed out illegal immigrant voters and prevent voter fraud.

The groups that regularly oppose Gessler often argue that his priorities are wrong and that he is spending too much time on a wild goose chase to find voter fraud, which they believe is very rare. Some say this concern is compounded by the fact that there is a certain level of incompetence and dysfunction in his office's basic elections operations.

Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper recently told us that he thinks Gessler may be intimidating voters, but that he probably means well and doesn't actually have partisan motives in his efforts.

Still, the civic groups that met this week took the criticism of Gessler a step further, maintaining that it's clear the Secretary of State is using his position as chief election officer to try and advance a Republican cause and stop Obama supporters from going to the polls. Gessler's office, which continually emphasizes that he has spent a lot of resources and money on encouraging registration, dismisses these accusations as absurd and out-of-touch with reality.

"They all yell voter fraud, but don't come forward with any proof," Medina said. "They send letters to everybody saying you may not be eligible to vote...and the objective is to confuse and intimidate people from voting. And if they send it to 4,000, 5,000 people and they can scare and intimidate 10 percent, those are people that won't come out. Because their theory is, if we can't convince them to vote for us, let's keep them from voting."

With Gessler, Medina said, "It has nothing to do with voter fraud. It has more to do with politics and how to control who votes and who doesn't for partisan gain."

Medina added that this is especially important in Colorado, where the Latino vote is becoming very influential.

"Colorado is really at the tipping point in its politics to where I think the Latino vote...will be the decisive vote," he said.

And in Colorado, a key swing state that is split right down the middle, every vote counts, Gessler's critics feel.

"What's so infuriating about what he is doing is...we're talking about a 1 percent or less than 1 percent margin in Colorado right now," said Patty Kupfer, managing director with America's Voice, an immigration reform group. "The Latino vote is all that much more important because of that razor-thin margin. So if he succeeds in keeping 200 people from voting, that could be the margin in Colorado this time. It's just scary."

Jennifer Piper, an interfaith organizer with American Friends Service Committee, said that voters have lost their trust in the Secretary of State.

"Gessler has shown himself to be someone who holds partisan politics above protecting the right that people have to vote -- and that's come through pretty clearly, even in very conservative congregations," she said.

Continue for response from Gessler's office and for the latest Colorado polling of Latino voters. These organizations are especially concerned about controversial groups like True the Vote -- Gessler appeared alongside members at a recent conservative panel -- that are expected to challenge voters at the polls.

True the Vote opponents will be on site to stop any intimidation or coercion, said Jose Sanchez, program assistant with Mi Familia.

"SEIU is also going to clear out its headquarters and field offices of lawyers," says Medina, a Mi Familia Vota board member. "We are going to deploy them to all the states where we think there is going to be potential voter suppression, including Colorado...whatever it takes to protect people's rights to vote."

Rich Coolidge, spokesman for Gessler, sent us this strongly worded statement yesterday in response to the accusations and criticisms of these advocacy groups:

Just in time for Halloween, these partisan attack groups are telling horror stories about ghosts and goblins. Obviously, their partisanship blinds them from the facts. Gessler initiated the largest voter registration effort in Colorado history, which includes 400,000 more voters this election than 2008 and that number continues to grow. That effort also included Spanish language ads, which has never been done before by any other secretary of state. Since September 1, new registrations from Democrats outnumbered Republicans almost 2 to 1. It's obvious these partisan claims ring (sleepy) hollow as they try and trick, not treat, voters into believing they're non-partisan.

After Gessler's office announced the initial results of registration last week, Fox31 reported that Democrats in the final weeks before the deadline, have outpaced the Republicans in signing up to vote.

Regardless of this back-and-forth, Latino voters are expected to come out in big numbers in November. At least, that's what a poll released last week from Latino Decisions and America's Voice says.

Based on an interviews with 400 Latino registered voters in Colorado, the polling found that 69 percent of Latino voters in the state are enthusiastic about voting in 2012 and 54 percent indicated greater enthusiasm for this election compared to 2008.

Additionally, 64 percent of respondents said they would vote Democrat, 15 percent said they would vote Republican and 12 percent said they are undecided.

"[Colorado] could be the deciding state in this election, and the Latino vote will be the deciding vote in this state," Medina said.

More from our Immigration archive: "Out of fourteen illegal voters banned after Scott Gessler's campaign, how many voted? Zero"

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

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