“Elections are working well in Colorado,” is how Secretary of State Wayne Williams opened a letter to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the group convened by President Donald Trump to investigate his baseless claim that between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
“By every relevant metric, our state ranks as a leader in election administration,” Williams continued. “Thanks to sound policy and the hard work of our 64 county clerks and recorders, Colorado is often ranked first and always ranked in the top five in the nation in both voter turnout and percentage of eligible Coloradans who are registered to vote.”
This positive message is undermined by suggestions later in the letter that state elections officials have access to federal databases to do more to look for potential non-citizens on the voter rolls, said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that works on election integrity and voter access issues.
“Unfortunately in the letter, the secretary has several suggestions that we think will make it more likely that eligible voters will be struck from the rolls,” Nunez said.
Williams sent the letter Friday in response to a series of questions the commission asked about how well elections and voting are currently working and what should be changed. Friday was also the original deadline to turn over publicly available voter information, but that hasn’t happened because there is a lawsuit pending over the entire venture.
Williams suggests the commission is looking in the wrong places if it’s looking for double voters, felon voters and non-citizen voters. There’s already a voluntary database that collects information from 20 participating states and cross-references voter rolls and other databases to help keep various state rolls up to date. Encouraging more states to participate in the Election Registration and Information Center would address many of the issues raised by the commission in a more accurate way, Williams wrote.
“Because states’ election officials are the experts at maintaining clean voter rolls and ERIC is a powerful tool to facilitate this, the commission should reach out to ERIC to better understand its processes and security protocols,” Williams wrote. “The commission has requested states’ public voter roll data. While this data may serve a purpose, a single request for data that lacks the non-public data necessary to accurately match voters across states can’t be used to effectively assess the accuracy of voter rolls.
“ERIC states enter into agreements that allow them to securely share sensitive data and to ensure that, when the data is compared, it’s the most up to date and in a uniform, consumable format.”
In other words, what will the commission gain by knowing that 120 Joe Jacksons, all born in 1964, voted in the 2016 election? Because that’s the sort of information the commission will get from public data. In contrast, ERIC will know if a particular Joe Jackson with the same birthday and Social Security number is registered to vote in two different states and voted in both states in the same election.
Nunez said ERIC is also a good tool for finding eligible voters and making sure they’re registered in the right places, and she has no problem with the use of ERIC.
What she is concerned about is Williams’ suggestion that broader use be made of federal databases to check citizenship status of suspected non-citizens because those databases are often not up to date.
“We have to be very careful before going down that path,” she said.
In 2013, then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler flagged potential non-citizen voters for county district attorneys, and the vast majority of the cases turned out not to be fraud. In Boulder County, not a one of the 17 cases was an actual non-citizen.
In the letter, Williams identifies one case in Colorado in 2005 of a non-citizen attempting to register to vote fraudulently. He also identifies nine cases since 2011 of double-voting between two Colorado counties or between Colorado and another state, as well as a handful of people who completed, signed and returned ballots for deceased relatives or, in one case, the man’s ex-wife.
Under Williams, the Secretary of State’s Office has changed its practices to do a better job identifying and striking dead voters from the rolls.
Williams has argued that elections systems should be strengthened to reduce these types of incidents because some elections are decided by a single vote. However, Williams does not believe there is any indication of widespread or coordinated fraud. In some cases, forged signatures are made by spouses who get to the ballot box and realize their partner forgot to sign. These cases generally are not prosecuted.
Nunez said that cases of non-citizen voting and other voter fraud are rare, while efforts to aggressively purge voter rolls in ways that endanger eligible voters is not.
“The focus should be on how to make it as convenient as possible for every voter who is eligible to vote to cast a ballot, and that’s what Colorado has done,” she said. “The focus should not be on advancing policies that would make it more difficult to cast a ballot.
“We also know that we have good systems in place, and we aren’t seeing non-elgibile voters casting ballots,” she said. “What we see is other states making it more difficult for people who are eligible to vote to cast a ballot.”
Nunez said the publicly available data that the commission has requested is used not only by campaigns and political parties but also by journalists and election integrity advocates to make sure the system is working and identify areas where it isn’t. That data should remain public, she said.
Nonetheless, the public has reason to be concerned about the commission and whether identification of duplicate voters and non-citizen voters based on inaccurate data could be used as an excuse to purge legitimate voters, Nunez said. In that sense, it matters that Williams has framed his position as compliance with the commission’s request. The commission’s original request included information that is not publicly available in most states, so many states have said they are not complying with the request because they are only sharing what’s already public. Colorado, in contrast, said it would comply — but only with publicly available data.
It’s the same result with a different message.
“To the extent that any state is validating the work of the commission, that’s problematic,” Nunez said.
This story has been updated throughout.