Lawmakers tackle election glitches

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado turned “blue” in the 2008 election, but was red-faced when voter registrations, purges and recertifications of electronic voting machines made national and world news. To forestall future problems, lawmakers have introduced at least a dozen measures and seven joint resolutions in the General Assembly.

“It’s a sacred process,” said Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, of balloting.

Murray, a former Douglas County clerk and recorder, co-sponsored three election reform bills heard this week by the House Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs.

Like Murray’s measures, the bills and resolutions reflect the recommendations made by the Election Reform Commission, established last year by Senate Bill 243.

The 11-member commission was chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2006. Gordon advocated paper ballots over total reliance on electronic voting systems. The commission began meeting in November and reported findings and recommendations in February.

In terms of elections, Colorado has been on the cutting edge since 1984, when voters approved the “Motor Voter Act,” a ballot measure that allows Coloradans to register to vote when their drivers’ licenses were issued or renewed.

“Colorado is one of only seven states that allow early counting of ballots,” said Kristen Thomson, a lobbyist representing the interests of the Colorado Vote by Mail Project. “Colorado is way ahead.”

But Colorado lost its early reputation for election savvy in 2006, when electronic voting equipment was zapped. A Denver District Court found former Secretary of State Gigi Dennis guilty of failing to appropriately certify electronic voting equipment after the August primary election.

When the 2006 general election hit, Denverites steamed in freezing temperatures as they waited hours in lines to vote because computerized voter verification systems repeatedly crashed. No one ventured a guess on how many voters failed to cast ballots because they abandoned lines that wrapped around blocks.

The fix-it bills and resolutions stem from a pileup of fumbles including:

• October 2008: The New York Times reported that nearly 37,000 voters were removed from voter-registration rolls between July and October 2008. Congressman Mike Coffman, R-CD 6, who was then secretary of state, characterized the news reports as “way off!”

The Department of State declared that only 14,049 voters had been purged by county clerks and that most were duplicate registrations or voters who had moved either to another county or state. The office admitted that another 4,000 or so voters had been misinformed about the registration deadlines.

Voting rights groups railed against Coffman for having rejected thousands of voter registrations that lacked a single checkmark in a box.

In compliance with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), the voter registration form required identification. Registrants who didn’t have a driver’s license or Department of Revenue identification number could enter the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. However, they also had to check a box to reaffirm that they didn’t have the state IDs.

• September 2008: Democrats blasted El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink for having discouraged Colorado College students from registering to vote. His office had issued a memo stating that students may not be eligible to vote in the county if their parents live out of state and claim the students as “dependents” on federal income tax forms.

“When election officials spread false information about who is eligible to vote and remove, not add, polling places, we need to be concerned that eligible voters will be denied their right to vote,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak.

The Balink incident — and his Republican National Convention delegate status — was splashed around the nation and the planet.

• December 2007: Coffman decertified three of the four equipment manufacturers allowed in the state, a move that affected six of Colorado’s 10 most populous counties.

“What we have found is that the federal certification process is inadequate,” asserted Coffman.

• March 2007: The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office announced new rules for testing and certifying electronic voting machines for security and accuracy, requiring recertification of equipment used in all the 64 counties. By December, the office had decertified three out of four manufacturers of electronic voting machines — affecting heavily populated counties including Denver and Arapahoe.

• November 2006: Dubbed, “the glitch of ’06,” Denver launched high-tech, touch-screen electronic voting machines in 55 locations — eliminating the old-fashioned paper ballot processes and condensing 400 neighborhood precincts. Voters stood for hours in the cold as the digital voter verification systems repeatedly crashed.

Rows of the touch-screen voting machines stood like lonely beacons of the new age, electronic voting system.

• September 2006: Colorado voters won a lawsuit against the secretary of state for failing to properly certify the security and accuracy of electronic voting systems manufactured by Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and Hart Intercivic.

Denver District Court Judge Lawrence Manzanares said the Department of State had failed to develop minimum security standards and had done an “abysmal” job of testing and certifying the machines. He ordered Dennis to adopt statewide security standards and ensure compliance before the November 2006 election. The latter didn’t happen — and the failure continued to plague the 2008 elections.

What’s on the legislative menu?

Gov. Bill Ritter recently signed two bills into law — House Bill 1179 that extends address confidentiality to a person, other than a family member, who resides with a victim of domestic violence, sexual offense or stalking; and House Bill 1186, which allows voters to cast mail-in ballots at an early voters’ polling place or the polling precinct on Election Day.

The bills — like those being heard by committees and in the hopper for the House and Senate chambers — didn’t sail to passage without some balking.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, sponsored HB 1186, designed to avoid disenfranchising voters who had requested mail-in ballots that were delayed. Co-sponsor Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, noted that Denver, Boulder, Jefferson and Adams counties had allowed voters to drop off mail-in ballots on Election Day.

Balink, who served on the Election Reform Commission, fought against the bill, saying it would cause chaos and lead to rising costs.

El Paso County allowed mail-in ballots to be delivered to any of three locations last year. Levy’s bill, however, allows ballots to be delivered to any polling site. That convenience, Balink’s office stated, will require an additional election judge at each polling site and add at least $40,000 to the cost of an election.

Levy said that Balink had exaggerated the facts, and cited Denver, which allowed mail-in ballots without problems and incurred a mere $2,960 in additional expense.

Later, Balink questioned Denver’s frugal expenditure. He noted that Denver’s election had cost more than double the $2.7 million spent by El Paso County.

Balink and others questioned the latitude given to voters who request the mail-in ballots, then decide to wait until the last minute to cast them. The bill’s sponsors pooh-poohed these criticisms, saying the goal is to enable more voters to participate in elections.

This week, three bills cruised through the House Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs.

House Bill 1335 establishes standardized guidelines for electronic voting systems and empowers the secretary of state to approve, test and certify voting equipment and devices.

In addition, House Bill 1336, addresses processing mail-in and early ballots in the same time frame. It also clarifies delivering ballots to the main address of a “group residential facility” of 10 or more dwellers, which would not require individual voter identification or mailings. The bill also calls for clear and uniform election forms.

A point of contention in the bill is a section describing the duties of the county canvass board and a majority rules clause in certification of votes.

Harvey Branscomb, an Eagle County Canvass Board member and representative of Coloradans for Voting Integrity, objected to the bill as written because it appears to be confusing and does not offer a consistent approach for dealing with disputed election results.

“A political process is being applied,” said Branscomb. “It is extremely difficult for the public to navigate these bills.”

He said most county canvass boards are small — consisting of one Republican, one Democrat and the county clerk and recorder. When election results are disputed, the bill allows a majority outcome, but that, Branscomb said, gives power to the majority party.

“I agree,” said Murray, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. “We need to tighten up the whole canvass board topic.”

Murray and Todd plan to amend the bill before the second reading in the House.

Another elections bill, House Bill 1337, requires a county to notify an elector by mail of a signature deficiency (or identification, if required) within three days of the problem being confirmed and not later than two days after an election. It also allows mail-in ballots to be counted 15 days prior to an election.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com