Colorado Newspaper Baselessly Hypes Voter Fraud Fears Ahead Of Recall Elections

Colorado newspaper The Pueblo Chieftain is misrepresenting Colorado's new voting law in order to stoke fears that a recall election targeting Democratic State Sen. Angela Giron will be marred by fraud. The paper's editorial board falsely claimed that the new law would allow individuals who live outside of Giron's district to vote in the election “but then later say they had a change of heart and have abandoned plans to move into that jurisdiction.”

Giron is facing recall over her support of legislation to expand background checks on gun sales and limit firearm magazine capacity to 15 rounds. Ballots in the election are to be mailed to voters beginning on August 19.

Claiming that “the Democrats who control the Colorado Legislature have passed a new voting law, one which literally invites fraud,” the Chieftain editorial board distorted Colorado law to manufacture a voter registration fraud scenario:

Under the law passed this year, people need only to swear under penalty of perjury that they have lived in Colorado for at least 22 days and reside or plan to reside in the precinct or county where they wish to vote. Once they have done that, they are allowed to cast ballots.

The problem is, if there were groups from outside a jurisdiction who want to affect an election in that jurisdiction, they could vote under the conditions outlined in the new law, but then later say they had a change of heart and have abandoned plans to move into that jurisdiction.

The Chieftain's claim that voting is allowed by those who only profess an intention to move into the district is false. In fact, the new law allows an individual who has already moved into a district to vote immediately, so long as they attest to their intent to stay. Voting from outside of the district is not allowed. Furthermore, prior to the enactment of new voting laws Colorado already had a rarely used same day voter registration provision known as “emergency voting.” As the Colorado Springs Independent explains:

[A]ccording to an email from [Colorado Secretary of State Scott] Gessler's office to [El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne] Williams' office, a person must have already moved into a district in order to vote in it.

“The 'intention' language is only relevant after the elector moved,” it says.

Second, the same email confirms, clerks can and should refer any fishy behavior to the local DA's office. [Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert] Ortiz, for instance, says he will track all last-minute change-of-address voters. If the address reverts in the coming months, he'll refer that voter to the DA.

Third, there are major penalties for voter fraud. According to the email from Gessler's office, "[i]t is a class 6 felony to provide false residency information." Martha Tierney, a Denver attorney involved in the drafting of the Modernized Elections Act, notes that a conviction means at least a year behind bars.

And there's yet another reason why widespread fraud seems unlikely: A last-minute address change has actually long been possible. Ortiz notes that the process was previously called “emergency voting,” and it wasn't popular.

In 2012, only 16 of the 77,671 voters in Pueblo County used emergency voting.

The Chieftain editorial also fails to note that the new registration law, which is part of Colorado's Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013, has support among those who run the elections. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted, “The Colorado County Clerks Association -- the officials who actually run elections, and come from both political parties -- worked with lawmakers, community groups, and election officials to hammer out this compromise bill.”

Other conservative media outlets have misrepresented the law in similar ways. Colorado conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics warned of “gypsy voters” and claimed that the new law meant “voters no longer have to be residents of the district they vote in...they only have to have the intention of someday becoming residents.” Conservative website The Daily Caller wrote that “it appears that anyone in the state of Colorado can vote on whether Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron get the boot or stay in office.”

The Chieftain has faced ethics questions over its involvement in the recall election. Chieftain general manager Ray Stafford faced criticism over a March 3 email to Giron where he stated his position with the paper and expressed his displeasure with her support of stronger gun laws. Senate President John Morse, who is also facing recall over his support for Colorado's new gun laws, told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow that he believed Stafford “threatened [Giron] with how he's going to cover her and then followed through.”

On July 28, ProgressNow Colorado revealed that Stafford, Chieftain production director Dave Dammann, and Chieftain assistant publisher and vice president Jane Rawlings all signed a petition in support of Giron's recall -- which had not been disclosed by the newspaper. Rawlings also sits on the paper's editorial board, which issued an August 1 editorial that dismissed subsequent conflict of interest allegations with the claim that “our news coverage of [Giron] has been fair and balanced.”

On August 3, the Chieftain used the top of its local news page to prop up an ethics charge against Giron. The charge -- that Giron listed her state email address and phone number on her campaign website -- was subsequently described by the director of Colorado Ethics Watch as an “extremely thin” allegation that would be “almost certainly dismissed as frivolous.” A Media Matters review of state legislators' campaign websites found the majority of legislators listed state contact information. A follow-up Chieftain article acknowledged flaws in the complaint against Giron, which did not merit investigation according to the Colorado Secretary of State.