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.