Voter misinformation bill a tool to use against fraud, says Colorado Common Cause
In January 2008, the night before the presidential election, Gilbert Ortiz received his first strange phone call. The following morning, the Pueblo county clerk and recorder would receive thousands repeating the report, but his relative caught him first. She asked why he had changed her polling location the night before the largest election in four years. And when Ortiz replied he hadn't, she asked why, then, she had received a call saying so.
Ortiz didn't know the answer to this question, and as he prepares for the followup election almost four years later, neither do Pueblo's law enforcement officials. But in the coming months, a bill moving toward the Colorado House of Representatives is targeted directly at upping the punishment for providing misinformation with the "intent to prevent a person from voting" in the hopes of stopping it from happening in the upcoming election.
After three readings, SB 147 passed through the senate last week, and if approved, it would create penalties similar to those for voting fraud, punishing individuals who intentionally propagate false voting information, such as incorrect times and locations, with a class-five felony that could earn them up to three years in prison and $100,000 in fines.
The legality issue is not in question: It is already illegal to willfully deceive Colorado voters. But those who support the bill, sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Irene Aguilar, argue the repercussions for doing so should be harsher.
This month, questions on whether the bill is a necessary addition to existing legislation have created debate within the political sphere. In the legislature, the issue is split between Republicans, who argue the issue occurs infrequently and is already covered, and Democrats, who claim a need for greater accountability.
The difference, says Colorado Common Cause director Elena Nunez, is in the repercussions. When misinformation is identified, the new bill would charge the state government with making an effort to repair whatever misinformation is spread.
"The attorney general's office came out in opposition to this issue, saying that it's already covered," Nunez notes. "But we want to make it clear that it is an offense, and we want to guarantee corrective action."
Colorado Common Cause, which maintains a voter information hotline that has collected reports of misinformation, is one of a handful of organizations dedicated to supporting SB 147, including 9to5. "Fundamentally, we're talking about the right to vote, which is the most profound," Nunez adds. "Knowing that Colorado is going to be a huge place for political information in 2012, we wanted to have steps in place to protect voters without trickery."
One of the concerns facing Common Cause and other supporters: Accountability and recovery possibilities are limited because it is so difficult to find and prosecute the original sources of information. In 2008, Pueblo stayed on target for expected voter turnout by making the misinformation public and quickly correcting it -- but without that option, Ortiz worries voting stations might have faced sparse use from the targeted constituency. According to her, the majority of those who received the bogus robocall were members of the senior Hispanic demographic, which she believes was specifically contacted in order to decrease its representation.
"It's kind of a no-brainer: If people are trying to purposely deceive voters, they should be punished," Ortiz says. "A lot of times it's very difficult to find out who bought the robocall and where it came from, even though we registered a complaint with the DA and the Secretary of State's office. We plan to do the same thing in 2012 that we did back then."
At the current moment, the bill has yet to be scheduled for its first House hearing, though it is targeted for effectiveness in the 2012 presidential election.
"The year 2012 is going to be a huge election year, especially for Colorado," Nunez says. "We wanted to make sure we protect people as much as is possible. And we want options for what happens when we can't."
More from our Politics archives: "Colorado Common Cause's Elena Nunez: 'We have such opportunities because we're in crisis.'"