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Search for voter fraud a tough balancing act for Colorado's top elections official

September 23, 2017 Updated: September 23, 2017 at 10:57 pm

Even as he announced the results of Colorado's latest initiative aimed at curbing voter fraud, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams conceded what the data didn't show.

The state's elections system, he said, is anything but broken.

"People in Colorado should feel good about the integrity of the state's elections," Williams said, offering an assessment sharply at odds with President Donald Trump's repeated, unsupported assertion that last year's presidential election was tainted by millions of bogus votes, presumably the result of nationwide dysfunction. Said Williams: "I have seen no evidence of fraud approaching those numbers."

The comments illustrate a balancing act for Republicans seeking new voter restrictions in the Trump era: On the one hand they continue to publicize the hunt for bogus ballots while seeking changes in the law. On the other, they must devote air time to rebutting Trump's rhetoric that fraud is widespread - potentially muting the alarms they're raising.

Despite that tension between the party and its president, critics say that voter fraud initiatives like the one touted by Williams this month feed a drumbeat over an issue they say is exaggerated for political effect - part of what they call an effort to suppress left-leaning voters.

"The study illustrates how extraordinarily rare voter fraud is," said Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause, which bills itself as a nonpartisan government watchdog.

An examination of 11.5 million voter records between the five states uncovered 112 instances of possible improper voting in the 2016 presidential election. Ten people who voted in Colorado are suspected of casting two ballots within the state, while 38 people who voted in Colorado may also have voted in one of the other four states.

The cases were referred for additional investigation and have yet to yield allegations of fraud - leaving open the possibility of administrative mix-ups and unintentional oversights.

The study looked at possible instances of double voting in states involved in Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit that says it is focused on improving the accuracy of Colorado's voting rolls.

Williams is not the first high-ranking Colorado official to make efforts to combat voter fraud. In 2013, after former Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler asked prosecutors to investigate 155 suspected cases of voter fraud, four people in Arapahoe County were charged for allegedly casting delinquent ballots - leading 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler to conclude the problem wasn't widespread. Reaching that verdict took six investigators and a combined 300 hours looking at the 41 names Gessler sent them.

After the 2016 presidential election, the El Paso County District Attorney's Office looked into hundreds of reports of suspicious ballots from the local Clerk and Recorder's Office. Local prosecutors filed charges against two people, both of whom pleaded guilty to voting in the name of a dead relative.

They were among eight cases across Colorado involving allegations of double voting in 2016 and 2017, according to records supplied by the Colorado Judicial Branch.

Williams sought to distance the latest effort from Trump's controversial voting commission, widely criticized as a political snipe hunt.

"It had nothing to do with any claims by people who sought recounts, or claims by any candidates, successful or not," Williams said, without mentioning Trump's name. "It's totally unrelated to that."

Holding up preliminary results hinting at fraud helps reinforce a sense that ballot boxes are stacked with illegal votes, bolstering the case for voting restrictions, critics argue.

"The strategy is to make an example of someone who made a mistake and in no way deliberately undermined the rights of others or threatened the integrity of the electoral process," Lorraine Minnite, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden who studies the issue, said in an email.

The small number of possible illegal votes raises questions over the resources being poured into the issue, said Seth Masket, chair of the University of Denver Political Science Department.

"It's consistent with a number of efforts we've seen, largely from Republican leaders both nationally and in various states, that there's an ongoing concern with the integrity of the vote and worries that people may be cheating, people may be voting more than once," he said. "Of course, there's very little evidence to back that up.

"This seems to be a lot of effort expended toward preventing very few crimes."

Williams said the study involved no additional expense to his office beyond staff time. He defended his office's participation, saying that patrolling the state's voter rolls, and preventing double voting, is a core part of his mission.

"Any time you have someone voting illegally that, first, can make a difference in an election. And second, and equally as important, is it affects people's confidence in the elections process. We want to ensure that we have a process that people can feel confident in."

Despite Williams' defense of Colorado's elections, he said he is in favor of restricting the ability of people without photo IDs to register on the day of an election, arguing that vetting should be required in advance. He said he wants to strike a balance between ferreting out illegal activity and ensuring that voting rights are preserved.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said the ERIC study, like similar efforts, shows that existing laws are adequate to address the problem of voting irregularities.

"It really just proves our point that individual voter fraud - one vote at a time voter fraud - is very rare and has no impact on the outcome of elections, as contrasted with voter suppression efforts, which affects thousands and thousands of votes at a time and does have an impact on elections," said Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado.

The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this article.

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