First vote reform panel offers little consensus, many directions

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When Gov. Bill Ritter reviews Ken Gordon’s application to become Colorado’s next secretary of state, he’ll find one qualification no one else can match.

Gordon, the outgoing Senate majority leader, heads a commission that’s looking into all aspects of the state’s elections. The commission was created through legislation Gordon wrote, and its hearings were timed to start just days after Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, won a seat in Congress, which makes it necessary to replace him.

The commission hearings should provide an opportunity for Gordon to demonstrate his impartiality. Republicans have long expressed concern that the longtime Democrat office-holder would be too liberal in his approach to running elections.

The first meeting of the Election Reform Commission on Wednesday offered some initial clues about Gordon’s potential leadership style.

When Ritter looks at the notes from the hearing, he may notice that the Denver senator almost exclusively errs on the side of inclusiveness. This was typified during testimony from Eagle County voting integrity activist Harvie Branscomb, who, in his MIT-degree fueled erudition, rambled into a microphone in the Old Supreme Court Chamber past the half-hour mark before Gordon raised his voice.

It’s safe to say Coffman would have intervened about 25 minutes earlier.

“How many more questions have you got?” Gordon finally asked, referring to the largely rhetorical questions Branscomb was posing to panel members.

“Just three more,” Branscomb said, to the snickers of county clerks in the audience.

Branscomb finally concluded after about 40 minutes.

“I could go on,” he said before taking his seat.

The charge of the commission created by Gordon is as wide-ranging as Branscomb’s curiosity, potentially touching virtually every major facet of Colorado election law.

The panel will make recommendations about possible legislative changes by March 1, with the idea that the process will be less partisan during an off-election year. Gordon said “major changes” are possible as a result of the work of the committee, which is composed of five Democrats, five Republicans and one unaffiliated member.

However, it’s difficult to ascertain what those changes might be, considering that members of the 11-person panel seemed to want to go in at least 11 different directions.

Denver County Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O’Malley, who has pushed for paper-ballot, polling-place elections in Denver, wants to know if every county in the state should hold similar elections. Bent County Clerk Patti Nickell, on the other hand, wants counties to be able to hold exclusively mail-ballot elections.

Paul Hultin, the plaintiff’s attorney in the influential 2006 voting lawsuit Conroy v. Dennis, seems headed in a direction that would potentially force vendors of electronic voting machines to disclose all the proprietary information about their products to the public. However, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs wants to look at entirely doing away with the state-level certification of electronic voting equipment, relying on federal testing instead.

El Paso County Clerk Bob Balink, a Republican, wants to address his concerns over what he felt were the Democratic Party’s unsavory voter registration tactics before the 2008 election. Meanwhile, Martha Tierney, counsel for the Colorado Democratic Party, who testified at the hearing, suggested centralizing voter registration processes through the Department of State — which will soon be headed by a Democrat — taking power away from the county clerks.

“This is not going to be popular with some of the county clerks. I know that,” Tierney said.

Gordon, finally, said he favors a reduction in the use of electronic voting, so the process “doesn’t have a lot of black boxes.” Gordon also has professed an interest in all-mail-ballot elections, like those held in Oregon.

In the past, Gordon has sponsored a law allowing voters to request a permanent mail-in ballot, and for another requiring electronic voting machines to print out a paper record of votes cast. Gordon also has been on the losing side of some voting bills he backed, like last session’s failed attempt to require all counties to hold paper-ballot, polling-place elections.

If there is one major area of consensus, it seems to be that there’s a need for more stringent post-election audit procedures. That seems particularly pressing following the recent experience of Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall, who discovered that her Hart InterCivic optical scanners were misreading paper dust on ballots as votes — and she noticed the problem only because alert election judges pointed it out.

The odds of catching the problem — which led a recount of some 400,000 ballots — would have been “slim” under the state’s current audit procedures, Hall said. Hall instead called for a “truly statistically based audit.”

Many of the ideas that come forth from the panel probably will emerge from the subcommittees formed on Wednesday.

The first will address the issue of potential election uniformity and standardization of elections among counties, and will include O’Malley, the Denver County clerk; GOP election lawyer Scott Gessler of the firm Hackstaff Gessler, who is known for his expertise on voting rights law; and Scott Martinez, an attorney at Holland and Hart, who specializes in information-technology law.

The second subcommittee will address registration issues and the state’s voter database, and includes Paul Hultin, of the firm Wheeler, Trigg, Kennedy, who opposes electronic voting; Larimer County Clerk Scott Doyle, who is best known as a national pioneer for the electronic “Vote Center” model of voter registration; and Mark Baisley, president and CEO of Slipglass Enterprise Information Security Architects.

The third subcommittee will address voter registration issues and the statewide voter database, and will include El Paso County Clerk Balink; Bent County Clerk Patti Nickell; and Castle Rock Town Clerk Sally Misare.

The panel’s next full committee meeting is set for Dec. 2.

Gordon and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs, who said he has served under six different secretaries of state, and probably will soon serve under his first Democrat, will not sit on subcommittees.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Gordon will be working with Hobbs in the secretary of state’s office.