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Election Day gremlins: 16,000 judges but who's counting?
By Mary Wickersham for the Denver Post 14 November 2004
From the post-election headlines, voters might think that there were no problems with the integrity of the election in Colorado. But that's not entirely accurate.

There were serious problems with the integrity of the election - just not problems that ultimately affected the outcome of major races. If the presidential race had been closer, there would have been much for lawyers to chew on.

Our sigh of relief this time was produced by sheer weight of numbers rather than a lack of real election problems.

The list of issues we saw in this election is troubling. Outdated voter-registration lists. Election judges turning voters away because of misguided interpretations of new election laws. Voters who never got to cast their ballots because they never received requested absentee ballots.

At FairVoteColorado, volunteers fielded thousands of calls from voters who cared passionately about the outcome of the election but who, for a variety of reasons, never got to cast ballots or were desperately afraid their votes would not count.

Staging an election is an incredibly complicated undertaking. The many moving parts in the nuts and bolts of an election make change difficult and quick change nearly impossible.

Still, some of the problems with Colorado's 2004 election should have been averted, some might have been averted, and all of the problems must be addressed for future elections. We have an opportunity now to plan ahead so that all legitimate voters can be satisfied that their votes will count in future elections.

Reforms caused some confusion

How did we get here? Many answers can be found in the nationwide stampede to election reform. In addition to the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), there have been recent changes in state election law. When we mixed the 161 pages of HAVA in with the many new state election laws, what we got was widespread confusion and more problems than we had before we "fixed" elections.

As a result of the fixes, there were statewide problems ranging from provisional ballot problems to the lack of clear and timely instructions about all the new election changes.

The secretary of state's election rules went through at least four different versions this year before the final set of rules was issued on Oct. 22, less than two weeks before Election Day. Similarly, the statewide election judge training manual produced by the secretary of state's office was not issued until a week before the election.

By that time, a substantial portion of the state's 16,000 judges were already trained, and many Coloradans had already cast their ballots during early voting.

There were county-level problems ranging from poor judge training to incorrect interpretation of state law or rules. Denver improperly rejected some provisional ballots cast during the primary. Many Denver precincts ran out of voting materials hours before the polls closed, leaving voters waiting in long lines while additional materials were dispatched.

Many counties had problems with absentee ballots. Denver sent 13,000 ballots late, Saguache sent late ballots to nearly a third of that county's voters. Instructions on absentee ballots were wrong in several counties, including Denver and Adams. There were inexcusably long lines for early voting in many counties, where clerks have discretion to designate as many locations as they deem appropriate.

Finally, there was the substantial counting problem experienced in Boulder that resulted in state and national races decided days before the votes from that county were included - giving voters there the understandable feeling that their votes did not count.

Most prevalent were precinct-level problems. Election judges in Boulder, Denver, Jefferson, Douglas and Weld counties gave incorrect instructions to voters about IDs, and more alarmingly, sent dozens of these voters away without allowing them to cast ballots.

Some judges incorrectly told provisional ballot voters that they should only vote for president. Some judges were still redirecting voters to other polling places or clerks' offices minutes before the close of polling instead of offering provisional ballots.

Where do we go now?

Now that we know what went wrong, let's focus on what we can improve for future elections.

We have to develop better provisional ballot laws and procedures. Provisional ballots were instituted as a response to problems that resulted in as many as 3 million voters nationwide not being able to vote or have their votes counted in 2000.

The Secretary of State's Blue Ribbon Panel on election reform was in the vanguard of voting rights protection when it recommended provisional ballots even before HAVA passed. Eighty-eight percent of the 27,000 provisional ballots cast in Colorado in 2002 were found to have come from eligible registered voters. They were legitimate voters who otherwise would not have been able to vote without this meaningful reform.

However, inconsistencies between counties threaten the promise of this innovation. We must do better on this.

In addition to consistency of application, we should consider changes in provisional ballot laws. There is no reason to reject provisional ballots from eligible registered Colorado voters who mistakenly show up in the wrong precinct.

In the end, the goal of any election should be to count all votes and only legitimate votes. One uncounted vote from an eligible voter has statistically and philosophically the same effect on the integrity of an election system as one fraudulent vote.

Speaking of fraud, Colorado has more security in its election laws than most other states. We are one of only 17 states that require ID from all polling place voters. We require ID for all new registrations, and require certain mail-ballot voters to enclose a copy of their ID with their ballots. We are also one of only a few states that do signature verification on all mail-in ballots.

That said, there are things we can and should do to improve the security of Colorado's elections.

Colorado law already has measures in place to ensure that felons are removed from registration rolls and that all double registrations statewide are removed before the election. Those procedures need to be followed and emphasized. Election officials could also make more use of our robust signature-verification apparatus to check questionable ballots or certain registrations.

And let's re-examine our current Rube Goldberg precinct-based election model. We shouldn't be thinking of ways to triage our ailing system so it can limp further into the new millennium. Our current precinct-based election system requires armies of inadequately trained amateur election judges at thousands of different locations. This system has long outlived its usefulness.

Colorado should continue taking the lead in non- precinct voting. Between early and absentee votes, close to 40 percent of Colorado's vote this year was cast outside of precincts - more than 50 percent in some counties. We should explore ways to make mail voting and early voting even more accessible and convenient to a public that has clearly embraced them.

Larimer County has pioneered what could become a watershed innovation in elections: vote centers. Instead of having 190 precinct polling places with all their inherent problems, officials created 31 vote centers throughout the county. Voters could vote at any center.

Many other Colorado counties - and, indeed, many other states that were watching Larimer this November - are eager to switch to this cheaper, more efficient, more secure, more professional and more controlled model. The day may even be approaching in the not-so-distant future that Colorado could have statewide voting centers.

Colorado has survived the 2004 election. And although that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, once the dust has settled there are many dedicated election officials and policymakers eager to begin preparing for the next highly scrutinized election.


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