COLORADO — The framing of a late July story from NBC News was striking: Scott Gessler, the no-name secretary of state from Colorado, is poised to become the Katherine Harris of the 2012 election.
The analogy should be taken with a grain of salt, of course—a lot of events would have to happen just-so for Gessler’s interpretations of election law to shape the fate of the presidential contest. Still, as controversies over voting rules play out in swing states around the country, Gessler is at the center of the action here.
A Republican who’s prone to broadsides against “the professional angry left,” Gessler has pursued a number of initiatives that have come in for criticism from liberal groups and voter-rights organizations, among them his decision to order county clerks to cease mailing ballots to “inactive voters”—defined as registered voters who failed to cast ballots in the 2010 general election and didn’t respond to mailed notices—and his successful effort to gain access to Homeland Security data in order to vet voter rolls for noncitizens.
As a result, though the state legislature hasn’t passed new voter ID laws since 2003, Colorado is home to the same partisan battles over voting rules as the rest of the country—with Democrats accusing Republican officials (especially Gessler) of orchestrating an intimidation campaign designed to discourage turnout by left-leaning voters, and Republicans (especially Gessler) insisting that states crack down on potential voter fraud to insure a free and fair election.
No one could say that the stand-off has gone uncovered in Colorado media. The Denver Post, the state’s largest newspaper, has done a steady job of reporting incremental developments in the back-and-forth fight over voting rules, as well as Gessler’s quarrel with some of the same groups on campaign-finance laws. (And often, Gessler and his critics have taken directly to the Post’s opinion pages.) The Colorado Independent recently filed a lengthy (maybe too-lengthy) report on a hearing about Gessler’s proposed rule changes. Even the Fort Collins Coloradoan picked up the Gannett article about Gessler’s appearance at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington.
Still, more than two years after Gessler charted his course in the secretary’s office, my sense is that Colorado readers would be well served by a more authoritative, analytical, big-picture account that drills down into his best evidence of vote fraud and Democrats’ best evidence of voter suppression—and that spells out as clearly as possible Colorado’s current voting ID requirements and protocols.
In the absence of such an ambitious examination, partisan boilerplate (i.e., “Democrats will always look the other way when illegal immigrants vote,” or “Republicans will stop at nothing to give their candidates an edge this fall”) will continue to drive the debate, even as it does little to resolve it. Meanwhile, disaffected readers may write the dispute off as just another partisan feud—and so miss out on information that could help ensure that their vote is counted.
The reporting to date offers many threads that might be tugged on. Consider this passage from that brief Gannett story on July 26:
Gessler has said that more than 5,000 registered Colorado voters at one point weren’t citizens, and 2,000 of them have voted. His office has since issued revised estimates that put the number of fraudulent voters at fewer than 500.
A revision like that is enough to make reporters look askance at other numbers coming out of Gessler’s office—and to ask to see the evidence for those remaining 500. They might also ask some questions about how many of those 500 would have been deterred by Gessler’s changes—and how many legitimate votes might be turned away.
At the same time, as Nate Silver of The New York Times noted, eye-popping estimates of number of people who might be prevented from voting by some of the strictest new laws should not necessarily be taken at face value.
Also worth keeping in mind—and making clear to readers—is that whatever the merits of Gessler’s approach, the laws on Colorado’s books are not especially restrictive compared to those now in effect in many states. In that same post, Silver guesstimates that Pennsylvania’s new law could swing the presidential vote there about 1.2% toward the GOP, while changes in other states might boost Republicans by less than half a percentage point. Colorado doesn’t make his list.
These issues are complex and contested enough that reporters may not be able to say with confidence who has the better of the argument, or what impact the stricter rules will have. But by taking a deeper look and raising their ambitions—which would mean finding connections between what’s happening here and elsewhere around the country, and seeking out voices other than Gessler and his local adversaries—journalists could make the story more compelling, more accessible, and more meaningful. They might, in the process, help some voters cast their ballots more smoothly on Election Day. That’s all well worth doing, even if the next Katherine Harris isn’t in Colorado.