Legislators hear concerns of county clerks

The Colorado Statesman

Colorado’s county clerks have gotten off to an early start lobbying the legislature for election reforms after the previous session in which several proposals were killed during a divisive election year.

The County Clerks Association met with lawmakers on Monday for an informational session to outline several proposals ranging from an all-mail ballot delivery system to shortening voter registration deadlines and eliminating contention surrounding mailing ballots to inactive voters.

“Our goal today is to start a conversation on providing convenient, transparent and legal elections,” Donetta Davidson, former secretary of state and current executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, told the small group of lawmakers.

Several of the legislators represented members of the House and Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committees, which will likely be the first committees to see the bills.

“Obviously accessibility and integrity is one of the issues; balancing those and making sure we meet those,” continued Davidson.

The clerks have raised seven issues to the legislature, including:

• Creating a more expansive mail ballot delivery system, while providing polling places for those who absolutely need it;

• Considering shortening voter registration deadlines;

• Reassessing whether only active voters should receive mail ballots;

• Creating a uniform voting and tabulation system;

• Bringing reform to canvassing board operations;

• Updating regulations for poll watchers; and

• Refining a statewide election night reporting system.

The times are changing?

Many of the issues have come up in the past, including in the last legislative session when several reforms became a “political football,” according to the Clerks Association.

One such issue was over “inactive-failed to vote” status, in which voters have failed to vote in the previous even-year general election, and therefore are not eligible to receive a mail ballot without updating their status.

Democrats — with help from Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose — pushed a bill that would have declared inactive voters as being active. But the legislation died in a Republican-controlled House committee. This coming session Democrats control both the House and Senate. Davidson said it may be time to revisit the quandary.

“The ‘inactive’ status was part of a compromise to ensure state and local officials did not waste money providing services for citizens who had likely moved, died or did not intend to vote,” said Davidson. “We’re hopeful that in this post-election session, we can analyze how many potential voters were affected by this system and address any needed reforms.”

Denver and Pueblo counties have won initial lawsuits against Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s office that allowed them to mail ballots to inactive voters. Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson says she is working with the Secretary of State’s Office on legislation that would address contention surrounding the inactive voter issue.

“I’m not taking it just because it’s a down political year, I’m taking it because… there was a whole lot of education that happened last year, and there’s a whole lot of people that have warmed up to the idea more than they were last year,” said Johnson.

On the issue of voter registration deadlines, clerks have indicated they are ready for a new discussion. They have for years pushed back against shortening the voter registration deadline to less than 29 days. Concerns were raised that it would hamper their ability to ensure voter rolls are accurate. But that may be changing:

“We are ready to take another look at moving the voter registrations deadlines in Colorado,” Davidson told lawmakers. “We hope that in your leadership role, we will find partners willing to work with the clerks on reforms that make sense for voters and provide time to ensure accuracy and timeliness in the voter rolls.”

Clerks are also ready to expand mail balloting, pointing out that 74 percent of voters in Colorado chose to cast a mail ballot in the past general election. Clerks, including Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Pam Anderson, believe the statistic represents a “clear mandate” from the electorate.

Anderson said the current system — with local mail ballot elections followed by statewide polling place elections — creates confusion for voters.

“What does our vision of elections look like in the State of Colorado, that reduces confusion and maintains our high level of access and integrity?” asked Anderson.

Clerks are also looking to the future, seeking to explore a statewide uniform voting and tabulation system that utilizes the most modern equipment. One proposal is to offer a phased approach to reduce costs.

“Uniform tabulation equipment could standardize the risk limiting audit procedures that are in development for 2014 implementation, and provide systems that have the technical capability to efficiently audit with this method,” said Davidson. “If every county used the same system, best practices could be perfected and canvassing could also be standardized.”

Concerns have grown over ballot secrecy after several Colorado voters determined methods to trace ballots back to individual voters. Clerks believe a modernized standard system could alleviate those fears.

Updating the state’s election night reporting system could also help streamline elections, said Davidson.

“Clerks, all 64 independently-elected officials, are responsible for reporting to their electorate,” she declared to lawmakers. “But the public expects us to coordinate in such a way that anyone can view statewide results on election night. We hope to work with you and the Secretary of State to refine a system that will provide accurate, cumulative results from across the state on election night.”

The association also believes that increased integrity can be brought to elections by reforming canvassing boards and rules governing poll watchers.

Clerks point out that canvassing board agendas vary by county depending on tabulation equipment, voting models and county size. They also suggest that rules for poll watchers have not been updated sufficiently in the last decade. They are therefore asking lawmakers to work with them on updating the system.

But concerns are already being raised that county clerks are attempting to take control away from citizens.

“Party-appointed canvass boards are designed as the citizens’ independent check and balance on election officials and precinct judges, but currently treated as rubber-stamp certifiers,” said Marilyn Marks, founder of the Aspen-based Citizen Center, an elections integrity watchdog group.

“Colorado seems to be leading the nation in loosening election quality controls and building barriers to citizen oversight and election transparency,” Marks continued. “In the long run, that cannot serve either party well, and surely cannot serve the voters of Colorado.”

Jillane Hixson, with the Prowers County Democratic Party, raised similar fears over appointing election judges.

“Although the county parties provided an adequate number of names… painstakingly identifying capable Democrats to be election judges… our county clerk did not use our county parties election judges,” Hixson told clerks and lawmakers.

Legislators attending the meeting — including Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, chairwoman of the House State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, Reps. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, Lois Court, D-Denver, Dan Pabon, D-Denver, Rep.-elect Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Sen.-elect Matt Jones, D-Louisville — mostly asked questions and reserved their opinions.

But Ryden indicated a willingness by her committee to address the complicated issues surrounding elections reform.

“It seems to me… we have so many choices now that by the time you’ve explained all these options, it’s sort of like, ‘This sounds too complicated,’” she said.

For its part, the Secretary of State’s Office says it is monitoring the discussions between clerks and lawmakers, but will not officially comment on legislation until proposals are introduced.

In the meantime, Gessler’s office is overseeing a working group to review at least one of the reform issues concerning inactive voters. And he recently held an election integrity listening tour, which included public meetings across the state to hear from citizens on the recent election.

“By many measures, the November election was a success. But there is always room for improvement,” Gessler said on Nov. 30 when he announced the listening tour. “We want to hear from Coloradans about their experiences and how we can make our elections even better going forward.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com