By Liza Viana | Colorado Watchdog
DENVER — Colorado’s secretary of state has launched an unprecedented voter registration drive, leading to huge boosts in the number of Coloradans planning to vote in the presidential election.
“We’re pretty satisfied with what we’ve been able to accomplish here in Colorado,” Secretary of State Scott Gessler told reporters Wednesday, referring to the state’s advertising campaign and online voter registration efforts.
Gessler touted the success of an advertising campaign launched Sept. 4, which encouraged voters to register or update their registration information. His office spent $850,000 on a media campaign, plus another $250,000 in postcards and mailings sent to 1 million Colorado residents, urging them to vote. On that date, Gessler’s office also announced upgrades to the state’s online voter registration system, GoVoteColorado.com, to reduce paper registration backlogs.
There are now more than 3.6 million total registered voters in the system — almost 300,000 more than the number registered in the 2010 interim elections, and almost 400,000 more than those registered in time for the 2008 presidential election. From Sept. 1 through Oct. 9, more than 79,000 people registered to vote.
“Colorado did not grow 10 percent in the last four years,” Gessler said. “What contributed to this increase was the fact that the Secretary of State’s Office spent $1 million in targeted, effective ads and mail to encourage people to vote, and the Secretary of State’s Office made it incredibly easy for people to register to vote. And I think this is a spectacular success story.”
But he cautioned that the numbers are still preliminary; there are additional paper registrations that haven’t yet been counted. “Even though we don’t have final numbers, they’re only going to get better,” he said.
But on Tuesday, the deadline to register to vote in the 2012 presidential election, GoVoteColorado.com experienced technical problems, making it difficult for people to access it at times. For more than two hours, the site “was performing far below expectations,” Gessler said. Additional servers also were added to handle the traffic — about 162,000 people tried to visit the site on that day alone.
“Yesterday was definitely by far the highest day for the website traffic,” Gessler said. “There were a lot of hands on deck with this.”
Last month, there were also technical glitches with voters registering on their mobile devices or tablets. About 800 first-time voters who tried to register were hit with data-collection difficulties between Sept. 14 and 24. Gessler’s office said it would ensure those affected eventually got registered.
Despite the glitches, Gessler said the voter registration drive, particularly the online component, has been successful, and next time, more safeguards, such as the addition of more servers, will be put into place to avoid the glitches.
“I can’t affirmatively say we are by far the best, but I think we are one of the top” states when it comes to online voter registration, Gessler said, adding that it may even be among the “most sophisticated in the country.”
Eleven states currently offer online voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks legislative data nationwide. Connecticut and South Carolina have passed legislation to do so, but have not yet begun registering voters electronically, while New York’s system isn’t fully automated yet.
Gessler said his office is still in preliminary discussions with the Pew Research Center to survey people who registered to vote for the first time this year.
“We’re going to try to measure even better why people in Colorado registered to vote for the first time and hopefully to use that information in the future to encourage people to register to vote,” he continued.
Almost 1.2 million people visited GoVoteColorado.com since Aug. 31, although it’s possible not all were unique users, and that number may include multiple users that only counted as one — for example, if two different people logged on to the same iPad to register and update their information in the same session. After a news conference announcing the ad campaign on Sept. 4, the number of people visiting the website doubled; those numbers remained high through September and early October.
Then, last weekend after the first presidential debate, more than 30,000 people visited the site. On Monday, another 85,000 people visited and 162,000 people on Tuesday. Of the Tuesday visitors, 35,206 registered. The number of new or updated online registrations since Aug. 31 totaled 229,000.
Currently, about 106,000 voter registrations statewide are backlogged and need processing. But the online registration system greatly helped with the deluge, Gessler said. County clerks didn’t have to hire temporary workers to help slog through all of the paper submissions, like they’ve done in the past.
“They’re really working hard,” Gessler said of the clerks.
Gessler may have been trying to mollify the clerks, who on Monday sent him a letter, saying he has dismissed many of their concerns. These included a mass mailing to ferret out noncitizens, online voter registration system changes, ballot delivery system for overseas voters, and online mobile registration applications.
“Recent errors and oversights have created a cumbersome list of issues for local officials, and while we have sought to stay out of the public fray, we would encourage all election officials to work together to solve the issues which state has created,” wrote Colorado County Clerks Association Executive Director Donetta Davidson.
Gessler has launched a number of moves to clean up voter rolls. But in doing so, he also has come under fire from various corners.
For example, the nonprofit Colorado Common Cause accused him of removing voters from the rolls. Mi Familia Vote and Service Employees International Union claims that Gessler removed about 30,000 voters from the rolls in violation of the National Voting Rights Act. And in August of this year, Democrats questioned Gessler’s motivation when only 16 of the nearly 4,000 Colorado registered voters, who received letters questioning their citizenship voluntarily withdrew from voter rolls.
In September 2011, two Democratic congressman asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Gessler — who is Republican — violated federal law when he asked a judge to stop the Denver clerk and recorder from mailing ballots to inactive voters, the Denver Post reported.
During Wednesday’s call, in response to one reporter’s question, Gessler noted that there are always “partisan swipes that go on,” especially in an election year, regarding charges of voter fraud and similar abuse.
To be sure, Colorado is one of the most problematic states when it comes to voter fraud, according to a Watchdog.org analysis that found large numbers of inactive voters, “dirty” voter registration rolls and other problems. Early this year, Colorado joined seven other states and the Pew Center on the States in an initiative to identify voters who have moved out-of-state and clean up voter rolls.
“In my view, you want to make it easy to vote, and tough to cheat,” he said.
Contact Liza Viana at firstname.lastname@example.org.