Critics say SOS-elect Gessler 'a real activist' for corporate campaign secrecy, voter suppression

By David O. Williams
Real AspenNovember 29, 2010

Progressive election reform advocates and campaign watchdog groups are leery of Republican attorney Scott Gessler's agenda as Colorado's secretary of state elect. Observers cite a variety of reasons to be concerned about what changes he'll try to make over the next few years.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

“It's clear that there was an effort to put somebody into this seat who is going to be a real activist in support of corporate secret funding of elections and voter suppression,” Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, told Real Vail.

Toro sees Gessler and Republican Kris Kobach, secretary of state elect in neighboring Kansas, as part of a two-pronged approach to setting the national conservative election reform agenda. Gessler will work more to increase the influence of corporations in state and local elections, while Kobach will work on voter suppression issues.

“Gessler is more from the side of skirting and weakening disclosure laws,” Toro said. “He said on the campaign trail he wants to fight the progressive agenda, which is transparency and spending limits and public funding and things that make it so that candidates have to do more than just be on the phone with potential donors from large corporations.”

That's in line with Gessler's background as the go-to attorney for campaign finance violations and other election law issues facing conservative political issues committees. Gessler, in fact, doesn't deny it's part of his agenda as the incoming secretary of state. He views corporate contributions as a First Amendment issue.

“Recently the 10th Circuit [Court] struck down an application of Colorado's $200 threshold that triggers issue committee reporting,” Gessler told Real Vail. “According to the federal court, Colorado's law unconstitutionally impinges upon free speech. Accordingly, it should be rewritten.”

But asked recently about his “top two or three priorities” as the incoming SOS, Gessler told the WhoSaidYouSaid blog “photo ID at the polls” and “proof of citizenship,” although he said he didn't think he'd be able to get the latter past the Democrat-controlled state Senate. Gessler, however, says it would be good to at least “have the debate.”

As noted by ColoradoPols, there is no evidence a wave of illegal immigrants voted in this year's general election in Colorado. In fact, current Democratic Secretary of State Bernie Buescher rejected a number of ballots because the checkbox for citizen affirmation was left blank. Pols points out there's a much greater deterrent keeping illegal immigrants from voting than anything the State Legislature or Colorado Secretary of State can do:

“… It's a federal crime and a deportable offense to try to vote in a federal or state election as a noncitizen. It has been since at least 1996. What exactly can Gessler do, or even the State Legislature, that would be more of a deterrent than that? Well, yes — he can just make it really hard to vote. For everybody.”

Kobach, in Kansas, rode the anti-illegal immigration wave to victory in that state, promising similar measures despite a lack of evidence it's a problem at the polls. Kobach helped write Arizona's widely criticized and economically devastating anti-illegal immigration bill in Arizona, SB 1070.

In Colorado's U.S. Senate race, the Latino vote helped propel Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet into office despite a wave of GOP victories around the nation.

Toro said there are obvious racial undertones to voter suppression efforts like the agenda espoused by Kobach in Kansas and to some degree Gessler in Colorado. He said Kobach and Gessler are two sides of the same coin.

“Both of them are going to be involved in both agendas,” Toro said.

On the corporate disclosure front, state Sen. Morgan Carroll last week told the Colorado Independent she will pursue a bill to compel so-called “social welfare” political groups known as 501(c)4's to disclose their campaign contributions to 527 groups like Western Tradition Partnership.

That conservative political group sent out mailers in the state Senate District 5 (Aspen area) race that were called some of the “worst attack ads” of the most recent election. It has also been singled out for prosecution by the Montana commissioner of political practice.

“What has happened is they have basically been able to cloak the identity of who is really driving [a 527],” Carroll said. “One of the worst actors has been the Western Tradition Partnership, which was bad enough to land themselves an indictment in Montana. [Colorado Secretary of State-elect] Scott Gessler was connected with that very organization, and to just get basic transparency behind them is a problem.”

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