I. In Focus This Week
First Person Singular: Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler
“Honey badger of Colorado politics” plans to stay active
Colorado’s outgoing Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) has always been tenacious.
He has degrees from three different colleges, he once rode his bike through 11 states over 10 weeks, and he won the first election he ever entered.
Dubbed the “Honey Badger of Colorado politics,” Gessler was first elected to office in 2010 defeating incumbent Secretary of State Bernie Buescher (D) by 6.8 percentage points.
Gessler is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Law School. He also received his MBA from Northwestern University.
Following graduation from law school, Gessler moved to the Washington, D.C. area where he served as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice focusing on international criminal law.
He served as a U.S. Army Reservist while in the D.C.-area and joined 415th Civil Affairs Battalion in Michigan and did a stint as a Civil Affairs Officer in Bosnia.
Before coming to the secretary of state’s office Gessler was a partner in Hackstaff Gessler and focused on election law, constitutional law, public policy litigation and campaign finance litigation.
Gessler chose not to seek a second term as secretary of state and instead entered in the governor’s race. His term will come to end at the beginning of 2015.
You’ve been a pretty active secretary of state, tell us a little bit about your decision to run for governor instead of seeking re-election as secretary?
When I ran for Secretary of State, I wanted to improve the office through leadership and innovation. My first day in office I told the staff to think boldly, and they responded. I’m proud to say the office is more innovative, efficient, and bold than when I took office almost four years ago—and the people of Colorado are benefiting from that. Frankly, we have a strong case to make that we are more innovative than any department in the nation.
But leadership from the Secretary of State only goes so far. The Colorado legislature and governor continue to make bad decisions – not only decisions that affect elections, but also bad decisions that hinder economic growth and opportunity. As a western state, Colorado has always been a land of opportunity, where people seek practical solutions. It’s no secret that our current leadership has governed as though Colorado were a deep blue state, and our governor and legislative leadership have not listened to other voices. I ran for governor to change that.
What would you say has been the biggest change you have seen in elections during your tenure?
The federal government has flubbed its role in elections – specifically, the EAC tied the country in knots over its voting system guidelines. This has prompted state election administrators to cooperate and develop their own safeguards, and it’s great to see states forging cooperatives to share benefits and shortfalls of various systems. And we are watching states experiment with how to build successful election systems. Georgia’s uniform voting system has been a model that other states have looked to, for example, as we have been able to see the benefits of moving to such a system. States are also working together to share information about appropriate voting systems.
We’ve seen states voluntarily cooperate in other areas, as well. For example, Colorado is working with the ERIC project and the Kansas State Crosscheck program to improve the integrity of our voter rolls. We’re developing procedures to more quickly identify duplicate registrations across state lines so that we can cancel old records and initiate new ones.
What was the most difficult time/issue you have faced (elections wise of course) as secretary?
As our states’ chief election officials, secretaries of state enforce election laws. We’re tasked with ensuring only eligible voters cast ballots, and the eligibility requirements are few: citizens, 18 or older, and Colorado residents. Instead of relying on a loose honor system, we decided to verify citizenship, just like we check against the other two requirements. But the gridlock, partisanship, and hysteria surrounding this issue is disappointing. Just getting the federal government to comply with federal law and provide us with the information we needed was a big challenge. We got the runaround from various levels of the federal bureaucracy for over a year before we finally worked out an agreement to verify citizenship data. This helped pave the way for other states to also verify data. But it amazes me that certain partisans continue to oppose enforcement of basic, uncontroversial laws that protect election integrity.
It also disappointing that people frequently throw common sense out the door when it comes to election integrity. During the 2012 election cycle, a reporter from Mexico City interviewed me. When he disapprovingly focused on election integrity issues like photo identification and citizenship, I told him that I merely wanted to implement something like the Mexican system in Colorado. Mexico has strong integrity protections, which have helped improve the fairness and integrity of its elections. But he thought that Hispanic voters were fundamentally different than Mexican voters, and that while photo identification was fine for Mexico, it was somehow terrible in the United States. I strongly disagreed -- fair and honest voting systems are a universal aspiration, regardless of race, ethnicity, or country of origin.
Protecting the sanctity of our voter rolls shouldn’t be a wedge issue. In fact, what we’ve seen is that when voters trust the system and trust the results, turnout and participation improves. That should be our goal. If voters don’t trust the system, it makes little difference how easy it is to get a ballot.
What do feel was your greatest accomplishment and why?
We’ve turned a sleepy, administrative backwater into a focused, innovative, and customer-friendly agency. When I took office in 2011, staff morale was low. My aim was to change the culture in the office and push people toward a common mission. We met with employees throughout the office to gauge what they liked about their jobs and what they didn’t. Eventually, we settled our mission: We serve the American dream.
With everyone’s eyes set, we unleashed a host of innovations aimed at better supporting our customers. We kick-started languishing and forgotten projects, opened the doors to employee training and development, deployed additional resources to our IT development team, consolidated our call desks into one cross-trained, customer service center, and gave employees the power to succeed in our shared mission. Our employees are more enthusiastic and motivated than ever before, and statewide surveys show our agency has the highest employee satisfaction in Colorado.
The result? Colorado is a national leader in elections. Colorado is a national leader in business services. Our costs are among the very lowest compared to our sister states, and we provide world-class, innovative customer service. During the last three years, we have won multiple national and international awards. And we are at the forefront of new initiatives, such as open government data.
Our accomplishments and our customer-focused culture has produced national and international awards. And most importantly, I’m proud that we’ve built a culture where great people in this office will continue to do great things, long after my term as Secretary of State.
Is there anything you still hope to accomplish as secretary before leaving office?
In the coming months, my aim is to deliver a roadmap for developing a statewide uniform voting system. Since HAVA, Colorado counties have selected from a hodge-podge of voting equipment vendors. We’ve seen fragmentation of resources and expertise throughout the state, and our small counties struggle to keep up with their vendor service contracts. We need to move to the next generation of technology, and we’re working to design that statewide system and devise a funding stream to support county purchases.
What will you miss most about being secretary of state?
It’s been an honor to serve and to have an impact on people’s lives. I have truly enjoyed traveling around Colorado, meeting great people, and hearing their ideas about how to make Colorado an even better place to live. I’ll miss the ability to launch initiatives that make it easier for people to vote or do business with the state of Colorado. And while I’ll obviously continue to travel and learn, I’ll miss the interaction as Secretary of State.
As an expert in the field of elections, where do you see the administration of elections headed?
I think we are quickly approaching a reckoning where we have to honestly decide how much we are willing to spend on the administration of elections, and what we get out of it. There has been a real disconnect between costs and results. The mantra from some has literally been to spare no expense as we administer elections, without any visibility into the results of that spending. This is why I implemented ACE – Accountability in Colorado Elections – to actually measure and compare election costs in standardized, easy-to-understand formats. As a state, we need to get a better grip on the consequences of our policy decisions. Citizens deserve to know how their hard-earned dollars are being spent.
Voting technology is changing, which holds real promise. HAVA subsidies are pretty much exhausted, while voting equipment is coming to the end of its useful life. We’ve seen some promising technological advancements that may make voting and running elections cheaper in the long run. I think you’ll see quite a bit of innovation and change in the next several years, especially because states are beginning to sidestep the EAC’s cumbersome and ineffective approach to technological innovation.
I also think the growing dependence on mail ballots will be problematic. This has been a trend and we will increasingly grapple with the problems. Especially in the West, we have increased our reliance on the Post Office to conduct our elections, even as the USPS faces spiraling costs and reduction in service levels. Though many administrators believe mail ballots are more convenient, that won’t be the case if problems at the Post Office mean it is more expensive and less of a sure thing that your voted ballot will make it back and be counted.
What’s next for you, besides being able to sleep in on election days?
I don’t think I’ll ever sleep in on election day – elections and politics have been part of my life for a long time, and to me election day is one of the most exciting days of the year. (Trust me, I know that view isn’t normal.) I have been spending more time with my wife and two young children, and nothing is more fulfilling than being part of your kid’s lives. I’ll probably continue to teach, and I look forward to going back to the private sector and getting involved in election issues in limited, purposeful ways.
Any parting words of advice for your successor?
Regardless of the din and controversy, remember that you serve the people of the state of Colorado.
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