Scott Gessler Doesn't Give A...
Colorado’s secretary of state has spent his first year in office living up to his Honey Badger nickname by rampaging through the Legislature, chewing up his opponents, and creating all kinds of chaos. Is he out of control, or is he becoming a savvy—and ambitious—politician?
Wherever Gessler goes, people want to talk about elections. On a mild day in January, Gessler arrives at a hearing before the Veterans and Military Affairs committees to chat about what his office is planning for 2012: a little ditty he calls the Government SMART Act, which outlines all the activities of the secretary of state’s office.
Even accompanied by an entourage of five employees, Gessler seems a bit nervous. He’s addressing both supporters and detractors, including Representative Lois Court, a Democrat who called Gessler out last year. In support of a controversial bill that would require voters to present an ID at the polling place, Gessler had testified that almost 5,000 noncitizens had voted in Colorado during the 2010 election. The number seemed abnormally high, particularly since the state isn’t known for having much voter fraud, and Court joined other Democrats in questioning Gessler’s numbers. Gessler eventually clarified, saying just 106 voters in 2010 were “improperly registered.” (President Obama won Colorado in 2008 by almost 200,000 votes.)
Voter IDs weren’t detractors’ only disagreement. In 2010, when Colorado moved its primary from August to June, the legislators missed a critical issue: The law required candidates to turn in biweekly campaign finance reports from July up to the primary. The scheduling change meant that the filings would become an onerous, nearly year-long task, so Gessler submitted a rule to change the filing dates.
The trouble was, his office didn’t have the authority to make the change. “He’s deciding he’s going to amend the constitution,” said Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones, who presided over the case brought by groups Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch. “I don’t even think I can do that, and I’m charged with a lot more authority to interpret and apply the constitution than he is.” Gessler said, fine; candidates would have to file reports until the Legislature fixed the problem, which it did in January.
Gessler’s gaffes didn’t end there. When the Larimer County Republican Party racked up $48,700 in fines for not filing campaign finance reports, Gessler’s office reduced the fines, which is not an uncommon practice for a secretary of state. He then offered to sit in a “dunk tank” as a fund-raiser to cover the money. He backtracked after an uproar ensued about why his office would help pay fines it issued. Gessler also instructed clerks to stop sending ballots to “inactive” voters—people, such as troops stationed overseas, who’d missed the 2010 midterm election. A judge struck that down as well.
These antagonistic tendencies were apparent almost immediately. According to sources who requested anonymity, during one of his first meetings with the county clerks, he told them that he wanted to accomplish a few things during his term. He said he was planning to be controversial, because that’s what needed to happen to fix the problems he sees with voter rolls. Gessler said he expected to be sued more than any other secretary of state, but that he was going to fight, fight, fight.
Even though the relationship between county clerks and secretaries of state is not always amiable, the two sides usually find some common ground. Yet Gessler, the election attorney, didn’t seem terribly interested in learning how elections work from the people who run them. (Gessler remembers the meeting differently, saying that he took pages of notes on what the clerks said.) But election attorneys get called primarily when something goes wrong—they have little experience with running clean, accurate elections—and Gessler’s pugnacious initial approach got everything off to an awkward start. “He’s got a lot of ideas that he wants to shake up the status quo,” says one county clerk, “even though the status quo isn’t broken.” The clerk says it would be beneficial for county clerks and Gessler to come together before the 2012 election. “There’s an opportunity for Colorado,” the clerk says, “if we continue in this direction, to become another Florida.”