Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) announced Tuesday that he will seek his party’s nomination to challenge Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) next November. Gessler has made his name as one of the nation’s most notorious vote suppressors and has been fined by the state’s ethics board for misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Gessler was elected Secretary of State in 2010, after working as a Republican election lawyer and mounting an unsuccessful 2003 campaign for Boulder City Council. His campaign was premised on his pledge to fight against a virtually non-existent problem: voter fraud.
In three years in office, Gessler — who has embraced the nickname “Honey Badger,” has worked tirelessly to undermine the right to vote and campaign finance transparency in the Centennial State:
1. He spent thousands on a failed voter purge — turning up virtually no illegal voting. In August 2012, just months before the presidential election, Gessler sent about 4,000 registered voters a letter demanding that each prove his or her eligibility to vote. After bipartisan criticism of this expensive and unnecessary effort — and after nearly 90 percent of the people he suspected to be non-citizens proved to be legitimate voters — he abandoned the inquisition. This July, Gessler reported that he’d found 155 possible illegal voters, out of more than 3,000,000 Colorado voters — but a review of the 17 Boulder voters on his list by the city’s district attorney found every single one is an eligible voter.
2. He disenfranchised active-duty military voters, after promising to protect troops’ right to vote. As a candidate, Gessler attacked efforts to restrict his predecessor’s timeframe for sending ballots to overseas troops — fundraising off of the issue and asking supporters to show their support for him “for protecting our troops’ right to vote” with a $25 donation. But as Secretary of State, he prohibited election officials from sending ballots to tens of thousands of “inactive/failed to vote” voters because they skipped the 2010 election and had yet to respond to postcards asking them to re-activate their registration. When informed that many of those voters were active duty military, Gessler stood firm, saying “my office’s position remains the same.” When Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson (D) disobeyed the order and decided to send the ballots anyway, Gessler took her to court — and lost.
3. He illegally sought to unilaterally weaken campaign finance disclosure. In 2011, Gessler sought to weaken Colorado disclosure laws governing ballot initiative funding.
Ignoring a 2002 constitutional amendment, he attempted to issue a rule to raise the threshold for disclosure from $200 to $5,000. After a lower court ruled Gessler’s move illegal, the Court of Appeals upheld the decision, finding that “in promulgating this rule, the Secretary exceeded his authority and the rule must be set aside as void.” Undeterred, he again attempted to weaken disclosure for “527” outside groups by issuing a rule exempting most of them from having to disclose donors. Colorado Ethics Watch and Colorado Common Cause have filed a challenge to these new rules and that case is currently pending in state court.
4. He pushed for strict photo ID laws, while opposing new voting rights laws. Gessler consistently has supported proposals to make it harder to vote and opposed efforts to make it easier. Shortly after his 2010 election, he announced that strict photo ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements for voters were his top priorities. He led the opposition to a 2013 law which allows same-day voter registration, automatically mail-in ballots sent to every voter, and a real-time statewide voter database. In an op/ed, Gessler warned same-day voter registration “opens the door to fraud and error,” and would be “an open invitation to real problems in our elections.” After losing the battle on voting rights, he accused the legislature of “changing the rules of elections to try to seal themselves into power” and “the two worst ideas: mandatory mail ballots, and same-day registration.”
Last year, Gessler traveled to a Republican National Lawyers Association election law conference which included a panel presentation on the role of states and voter ID laws and charged $1,105.17 for the trip to his office budget. Colorado forbids such expenditures for personal or political purposes and, after an investigation, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission fined him; the commission determined Gessler had “breached the public trust for private gain” and that he had also broken state ethics laws by keeping money from his office discretionary account without submitting receipts.
In a May preview of his campaign strategy, Gessler slammed Hickenlooper and the Democratic-majority legislature for not focusing on things he believes important. “They used to accuse Republicans of only caring about God, guns and gays. And what did the Democrats come up with? It’s guns, gays and grass,” he complained, referencing the state’s post-Aurora gun violence safety reforms, its popular civil unions law, and regulations passed to comply with a November referendum eliminating state’s prohibition on recreational cannabis.
In his announcement, Gessler promised deregulation of corporations, mocked renewable energy standards, and cited a group of secessionists who want to form their own state with fewer regulations on the oil and gas industries as a reason he should be governor.