In the final days before November's election, national print and TV journalists were speculating whether Colorado would be "The Florida of 2012" or "Florida West" on election night. Why would they predict that Colorado's election management would fail? Because Colorado elections are run by an elected partisan Secretary of State: Republican Scott Gessler.
Voters and observers are skeptical of the motives behind our election administration policies. There was speculation that Secretary Gessler was seeking a partisan advantage by making it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to register when online voter registration websites and apps crashed. The Secretary also mailed out hundreds of letters to registered voters questioning their citizenship based on an incomplete and outdated federal database in the final weeks (and days) before the election. On Election Day, during media interviews about the administration of the election itself, Secretary Gessler predicted a Romney win.
Colorado voters deserve better than to be a punchline in national discussions of election administration shenanigans. It's no surprise that once in office, Secretary Gessler has continued to fight on behalf of the same partisan interests he represented as a private attorney, only this time with the authority and legal muscle of the State of Colorado behind him. But the question facing Coloradans is bigger than whether or not Secretary Gessler should be re-elected in 2014.
While some Secretaries of State have tried to place themselves above partisanship, there isn't any formal structure in place to require them to act in a nonpartisan way or support them when they do. As long as partisan individual runs the office, they will be tempted to give in to pressure from his or her fellow party members to make decisions that give one side an advantage over the other in an election or a pass on campaign finance violations.
Colorado Ethics Watch recently tackled the issue of partisan politics in election and campaign finance administration with the report Change the Game. The report evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the Colorado election administration system and looks at administration models used across the country to recommend changes to strengthen our structure and increase voter confidence.
The conclusion? The long-term answer isn't to change the player -- it's to change the game. Partisan politicians who themselves are players in the political arena shouldn't also serve as the referee. Making control of the election machinery itself a prize to be one won by one party or another to gain an advantage in the next election can only increase voter cynicism and alienation from a government that is supposed to work for the people.
As a much-hyped swing state, we are on the brink of a constant cycle of struggles over control of elections subject to national scrutiny. There are concrete steps that we can take to fundamentally reform how way elections are managed in our state. The General Assembly and citizens should learn the lessons from the 2012 election and start this discussion now.