DENVER — Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has a deeply partisan past, a dedicated cadre of supporters, a long list of enemies, a colorful nickname bestowed by liberal detractors and a Web site dedicated to “watching” him.
The scrutiny will only get more intense between now and November as the “honey badger of Colorado politics” — a reference to the ferocious, fearless animal — presides over voting in a battleground state that could help decide the presidency.
Gessler may be the most closely watched election official in the country, heightened by Colorado’s prominence, his ready-to-rumble personality and a series of loud disputes with what he terms the “angry left.”
The Republican has led fellow secretaries of state to question whether noncitizen voters have contaminated state rolls, although results of their investigations have been modest. He has sued local election officials to keep them from mailing ballots to what Colorado calls inactive voters and has been sued over efforts to loosen the state’s campaign finance laws.
Colorado Democrats do not mince words. “I think he has worked with the Republican Party and secretaries in other states to come up with these schemes to do everything they can to shave off a half-point or 1 percent of the Democratic vote,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio. “That’s their plan to win.”
There is no doubt about how Gessler, who previously represented Republicans as an election lawyer, wants the fall presidential contest to turn out.
He has endorsed Mitt Romney, said President Obama’s agenda must be “stopped” and told a GOP group that a good election is one in which Republicans win (he says everyone knew he was joking).
But he contends that his efforts to increase voter rolls have been ignored and that his influence is greatly exaggerated.
“I don’t count the ballots. I don’t choose the equipment,” Gessler, 47, said recently. “If you read through the election rules, they will be the most boring stuff you’ve ever read. And if you can find any partisan advantage, I’d love to know it, because I don’t see one.”
As controversial voting laws take effect in many states this year, Gessler has emerged as the most prominent example of a not-necessarily-new argument: whether partisan politicians can be evenhanded in overseeing elections.
“It’s a quadrennial debate,” said Doug Chapin, director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota. “But things are somewhat changed this year.”
In a series of states Obama won in 2008 — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa, for example — voters in 2010 chose Republican governors and lawmakers who have passed an unprecedented number of changes to voting laws.
The laws, which include requiring photo identification for voters, shortening early voting periods and changing requirements for registration, are necessary to combat fraud, they say. But opponents, in a record number of legal challenges, say the rules are attempts at voter suppression.
How the laws are implemented in the next two months — most often, secretaries of state are in charge — will be scrutinized as courts and the public decide whether partisan motivations are shaping decisions on who will be eligible to vote, and whether their votes will be counted.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) has found himself the defendant in several challenges to voting changes in that state. He lost the first round of the battles and was ordered to appear before a federal judge when he did not immediately move to implement the judge’s order to restore voting on the weekend before the election. Husted relented, but the state will appeal the ruling.
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently struck down Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s attempt to change the wording on a constitutional amendment on the fall ballot. Republicans claimed Ritchie was trying to discourage voting on a proposal that would require voter IDs by changing the title of the question from “Photo Identification Required for Voting” to “Changes to In-person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots.”
Chapin said Ritchie and Gessler are more often mentioned as the “extremes” among partisan secretaries of state, but Colorado will figure much more prominently in the presidential election. Obama won the state fairly easily four years ago, but it voted GOP in the three previous such contests.
Gessler’s aggressive actions in changing what he describes as a somewhat moribund office has prompted the liberal group ProgressNow Colorado to create a Web site called GesslerWatch.org.
Gessler has shown himself unwilling to back down from a fight and cheerfully adopted the “honey badger” nickname — from a wildly popular YouTube video — which may have been intended as a slur.
On a table in his office sits a silver platter filled with buttons that say, “What would the honey badger do?” If he is the badger, Gessler said, his detractors must be the “poisonous snakes” that are the animal’s prey.
“I think it’s kind of cute,” he said. “It’s got the word ‘honey’ in it.”
In some ways, Gessler has less power than some of his counterparts. With a divided legislature and Democratic governor, none of the voting-law changes that have swept the country were enacted in Colorado last year.
But Gessler’s critics say his policies and actions are more likely to affect poor and minority voters, who largely vote Democratic.
He has sued election officials in some areas of the state who want to mail absentee ballots to “inactive” voters, which in Colorado can mean that they missed the most recent major election. He lost the first legal challenge, although he said he was only enforcing a state law that says such ballots should be mailed to active voters.
Gessler rallied Republican election officials in other states to check their voting rolls for noncitizens and said he does not understand why that is controversial. Voters must be 18 years old, Colorado residents and U.S. citizens, he said. Why shouldn’t the state require proof of all three?
Gessler said that he does not necessarily think that his adversaries want noncitizens to vote but that they are willing to ignore the possibility. “I think there is this sort of see-no-evil culture where we’re not even allowed to bring it up,” he said. “Willful ignorance is not a sound basis for public policy.”
Last week, he ended the effort. After recently receiving a federal database of noncitizens and comparing it to voter rolls, the secretary of state said he had found 141 names common to both lists.
But Gessler acknowledged that there was not enough time to verify whether the information was correct or whether those on the list had subsequently become citizens. “It is unfortunate the federal government dragged its feet for a year, putting us in a difficult position for the coming November election,” he said in announcing the number.
Democrats said Gessler had wasted his time, finding what amounts to 0.004 percent of the state’s nearly 3.5 million voters, and had not proved that any noncitizens had ever voted.
Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, one of the groups that has taken Gessler to court, said the actions are indicative of his priorities.
“In an election year where Colorado is going to be at the center of so much activity, he could choose to take actions that encourage and enhance participation,” Nuñez said. “But instead, at every turn, he’s really working to limit and narrow participation. Which really boggles the mind.”
Gessler rejects the suggestion with a barnyard profanity.
He said his office contacts new residents to encourage them to vote. It compares driver’s license rolls to voter registration lists and sends mail to those who are not registered. It recently introduced a well-received advertising campaign — featuring a stand-up comedian pursuing real-life Coloradans and asking, “Are you registered to vote?” — paid for mostly with federal money.
“No one in the history of the state of Colorado has spent that much effort and resources to reach out to people to encourage them to vote as I have,” Gessler said. “No one in history.”
He said the criticism he receives is not because he is partisan but because he is a Republican. “You didn’t see these complaints — not one iota, not one tiny bit — when there was a Democrat in charge,” he said. Ever since Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s turn in the spotlight in the contested presidential election in 2000, he said, “every election official likes to have a blowout, one way or the other.”
That’s unlikely in Colorado, and Gessler said he worries “to some extent” that Republican charges of voter fraud and Democratic claims of voter suppression could lead one side or the other to doubt the legitimacy of the election.
But he said he is not concerned about public confidence if the vote in Colorado is close.
“We are ready,” he said.