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Denver clerk: Much to do by '08
By Chuck Plunkett and Jeremy P. Meyer, The Denver Post, 11/08/2007

The latest voting glitch in Denver shows that the election office isn't prepared for the highly anticipated general and presidential elections of 2008, the new clerk and recorder told City Council members Wednesday.

"What we have now is clearly not sufficient," said a red-eyed and weary Stephanie O'Malley, who blamed cramped office space and a handful of other factors for the slow count, which continued Wednesday evening.

With 22,000 votes cast Tuesday in Denver and thousands of ballots left over in early-voting piles, election officials and volunteers were simply overwhelmed.

O'Malley said she will ask for larger office space and an additional public- relations officer to help educate voters on how to fill out ballots. Without those improvements, she said, her staff won't be able to handle the volume of votes for a presidential election.

As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, officials had processed 91,506 ballots. About 2,000 ballots had not been fully processed. Paper ballots are first run through a machine that registers the votes, but an official must then run a "tally" to display how votes were cast.

A Wednesday morning tally of 81,613 ballots remained unchanged until 6:20 p.m., apparently because the official with the expertise to tally the ballots went home to bed.

Phone messages and e-mail messages to O'Malley's spokesman asking about the whereabouts of that official were not returned Wednesday night.

O'Malley received a mix of hard questions and moral support from members of the council's finance committee Wednesday afternoon, in part because of the public-relations spectacle that saw seven members of Denver's SWAT team and 13 other officers rush in shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday to help move the count along.

O'Malley assured the council that every vote sent will be counted. She said that no one had to wait in hours-long lines like in 2006 and that the process had been secure.

In all, Denver cast about 93,000 votes in this off-year election, about 46 percent of registered voters. O'Malley's office had expected 35 percent.

"This is not a catastrophe," Mayor John Hickenlooper said to sum up a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Instead, the creeping pace merely means a delay in mopping up the last of the votes, the mayor said. No ballot initiative remained too close to call, and the one race still in question was for a seat on Denver's school board.

Recalling a promise made after the 2006 elections, criticized because lines grew so long due to computer failures and which took nine days to tally, Hickenlooper said, "I said people will never wait in line to cast ballots.

They didn't."

Following 2006, Hickenlooper convened a 14-member panel to examine the process that found need for "significant improvement in virtually every aspect of the election process."

As a result, voters scrapped the three-member election commission and opted instead for a single clerk and recorder to oversee elections.

Wednesday, the mayor expressed confidence in O'Malley, the daughter of former Mayor Wellington Webb, to solve the troubled office's problems by next year. Hickenlooper added that O'Malley was one of the "most intelligent and most talented" government officials he knew.

Also, local election watchdog group Colorado Common Cause supported the process.

"If we look at where the Denver election division has been over the last several years, there have been more serious problems," said the group's director, Jenny Flanagan. "...If a paper system takes longer and we get an accurate result, it's worth the wait."

A cascade of problems awaited the 146 elections staffers and volunteers who started the day at 5 a.m. Tuesday, O'Malley and key officials said.

Though early voting had begun 10 days before, not all ballots were counted as Tuesday dawned, they said. About 8,000 ballots remained.

Officials estimated another 10,000 to 20,000 ballots would come in Tuesday, but the actual total was 22,000.

And though the machines used to count the paper ballots worked quickly, they have so far kicked back about 4,800 ballots because of erased votes or mismarked votes.

By law, officials have to interpret the intent of voters on those ballots. The process means examining them and creating new ballots to enter. The process takes time.

But the biggest problem is office space, O'Malley said. There simply is not enough room for more workers and not enough time to create extra space because several security requirements are needed to ensure a fair count.

Finally, the group of volunteers is made up mostly of retirees, and they went home after dark.

So at 9 p.m., O'Malley called Hickenlooper's chief of staff, Kelly Brough, to ask for backup from police, who meet background-check requirements and have helped in past elections, officials said.

Brough called Police Chief Gerry Whitman with the request and relayed O'Malley's cellphone number.

Within minutes, officers and SWAT members were on their way.

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