By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Some Republicans think it’s more than a coincidence that statehouse Democrats are preparing legislation for the upcoming session designed to take key electoral duties away from county clerks and put them under the control of the yet-to-be-named secretary of state.
After all, with the victory of incumbent Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District, the task of appointing a replacement falls to Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter. Barring a GOP coup d’etat, come January, a Democrat is apt to hold the Colorado secretary of state’s office for the first time since 1963.
And the Democrats are pushing hard for change. In her Nov. 12 testimony before a panel considering potential electoral tweaks, Democratic Party legal counsel Martha Tierney laid out what she called “a grander vision for reform.”
That vision includes centralizing control over voter registration processes, voter identification requirements and the training of election judges, Tierney said.
Democrats also will renew their push for paper-ballot, polling-place elections in all Colorado counties.
“I am of the view — and the party is of the view — that it is time to centralize some of our election processes at the secretary of state level,” Tierney told the 11-member Election Reform Commission. “This is not going to be a popular opinion with many of the [county] clerks. I know that.”
When asked if she considered the efforts politically motivated, Arapahoe County Clerk Nancy Doty, a Republican, responded, “Of course.”
During the lead-up to the 2008 election, Democrats battled Coffman over the removal of thousands of names from Colorado’s voter rolls and fought over a number of other voter-registration matters.
Voter registration issues were a hot topic nationally, too, with Republicans accusing ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and other liberal-leaning registration activists of fraudulently boosting Democratic registrations. Democrats responded by saying Republican challenges were aimed at suppressing votes.
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak, however, says her party would be trying to centralize electoral processes in the Department of State even if Coffman were staying on as secretary of state.
“We would be making the same pitch,” Waak said. “From my point of view, that was not political.”
In her testimony, Tierney framed the efforts to centralize electoral processes as a means to ensure that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment was being followed.
Tierney said different procedures among counties often resulted in a violation of voter rights. The changes, however, also would ease access to the ballot.
Tierney said the rules for the training of election judges should be standardized by the Department of State and disseminated to county clerks. Democrats were upset by what they felt was the overuse of provisional ballots in certain counties during the election. They say election judges in some counties did not adequately investigate why voters weren’t on the voter rolls before giving them provisional ballots.
Democrats also want the processing of voter registration forms to be more centralized. In the weeks leading up to this year’s election, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson and Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Scott Doyle chose to overlook a technicality that would have thrown out the registrations of voters in their counties who had not properly checked a check box on their registration forms.
But other counties enforced the rule. The Democratic Party favored including all those who failed to mark the box on the voter rolls.
Finally, Tierney said, the Democratic Party wants to centralize procedures for voters who lack a driver’s license when they go to the polls. Tierney said all counties should be able access a statewide motor vehicle database to check a voter’s status in lieu of requiring an ID.
The irony of Tierney’s “equal protection” argument was not lost on Republican election lawyer Scott Gessler, who noted jokingly at the hearing that Republicans had used a similar argument to win the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore.
In that decision, which gave the presidency to George W. Bush, Bush’s attorneys successfully argued that a recount of votes could not proceed in Florida because the state’s counties had disparate recount procedures — thus violating the equal protection clause.
Democrats will again push for paper ballots
Waak also said Democrats would again push this session to mandate paper-ballot, polling-place elections across the state — an effort that failed last spring largely because the powerful Colorado County Clerks Association lobby opposed it.
“The first and foremost principle is the belief that the voting system should benefit the voters,” Waak said. “A lot of county clerks want whatever [type of voting system] makes it easiest for them.”
As it stands, an increasing number of counties held paper-ballot elections this year, while some continued to use electronic voting machines or used a combination of machines and paper.
A supporter of paper-ballot elections, Denver County Clerk Stephanie O’Malley, a Democrat, raised the issue of election uniformity across all counties at the Election Reform Commission’s first meeting. O’Malley will sit on a three-person subcommittee that considers the issue.
At the hearing, the apparent Election Day malfunctioning of electronic voting machines in Arapahoe County was cited by the Democratic Party legal counsel as a reason for the entire state to switch to paper ballots.
Several county clerks who use electronic voting machines, however, said the real problem is not with the machines, but rather with the anti-electronic voting activists who have hijacked the Democratic Party.
“I think, certainly, they’re listening to [anti-electronic voting] activists,” Doty said of the Democrats. “I would suggest they find out more of the details about electronic voting equipment.”
Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Janice Rich, a Republican and staunch supporter of her county’s use of electronic voting machines, also believes voting activists opposed to electronic voting have too much influence on Democratic Party policy.
“We have proven time and time again that we actually know what we’re doing,” Rich said of the county clerks. “But, apparently, there are those who think they know more about it than the counties that have successful elections time and time again.”
“The only time anyone seeks a voice on the matter is at public hearings on the Front Range, with the ‘usual suspects’ in attendance,” she added, alluding to the hoard of electronic-voting opponents who usually testify at those hearings.
The Election Reform Commission, which is composed of five Democrats, five Republicans and one unaffiliated member, will present ideas about potential legislation to the Legislature no later than March 1.
Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, the outgoing Senate majority leader and chair of the committee, has said “major changes” are possible.
Doty, however, said she believes this is an odd time for the Democratic Party to seek a “grander vision for reform,” considering that the 2008 elections went relatively smoothly.
“I think it’s politically driven,” Doty said. “You don’t fix something that ain’t broken. It might get worse.”