Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Many wary over election reform

Proactive election reform bills provoke levity, debate

By Leigh E. Rich

Despite some levity and a bit of semiotic elbowing, the Senate Local Government Committee was all business Tuesday during testimony for Senate Bill 198, an election reform measure that would require “voter-verifiable” paper trails in all precincts by 2008 or, with a waiver, 2010.

The penchant for joking was catching at the Capitol this week, with Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, ribbing Secretary of State Donetta Davidson at a press conference Thursday for having him “relegated to 10,000 years in purgatory” as part of the Blue Ribbon election commission that’s examined Colorado and federal election laws nearly every Friday since last December.

However, with Good Friday approaching—and first reading of the Blue Ribbon’s own bipartisan election reform bill being sponsored by White and Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder—“I hope to ascend to a higher place,” White said.

There is some overlap between SB 198, sponsored by Sens. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, and Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, and the Blue Ribbon bill. Both require Colorado counties to purchase or retrofit electronic voting equipment as required by Congress’ Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 with a verifiable paper trail adjunct that records an elector’s votes and both expand the list of acceptable forms of identification voters can use to register.

The Blue Ribbon bill requires compliance with the paper trail mandate by 2010. The election commission hopes this will give counties, particularly ones that have already purchased HAVA-complaint machines and will need to retrofit them, enough time to make the switchover.

Costs and timing are two concerns that have been voiced, mainly by county clerks who oversee elections, in regards to both bills. Denver, for example, falls into the retrofitting predicament, with the county still owing $3.2 million on its new equipment. It would have to find additional funds for the paper trail adjunct.

“It’s a trade-off here,” Gordon said. “It’s going to cost some money.”

But Carol Snyder, an Adams County clerk who represented the Colorado County Clerks Association before Tuesday’s committee, called the paper trail requirement an “extreme financial burden.”

“It really is an unfunded mandate,” Davidson admitted at Thursday’s press conference.

And since not all of the electronic voting equipment that produces a paper record has been certified, Snyder added, other counties might find themselves caught between trying to comply with HAVA’s January 2006 deadline while waiting for the paper trail machines.

It’s a strange Catch-22, the Adams County clerk intimated at Tuesday’s hearing. HAVA, in part a response to the punch-card confusion of the 2000 presidential election in Florida as well as a means to give voters in the disabled community greater access to voting without need for assistance, moves voting away from paper ballots.

Paperless electronic voting, however, has many citizens concerned.

While Gordon opened his SB 198 testimony on a lighter note, playfully stating that he’s “not a conspiracy theorist” and doesn’t “believe John Kerry won the election,” he told the seven-member Local Government Committee “that’s not why I’m here” and launched into the details of a bill he believes will build voter confidence in Colorado’s election system.

Playing off of Gordon as if a stand-up tag team, Mitchell facetiously stated for the record, “I firmly believe Richard Nixon won the election of 1960.”

On a more serious note, he cited the “debacle” of the 2000 Florida election as an impetus for SB 198, a bill Mitchell signed on as a co-sponsor after deciding to indefinitely postpone his own Senate Bill 79, which also would have required a permanent paper record of each elector’s votes.

Both Gordon and Mitchell emphasized that their bill is in no way a reaction to any previous Colorado election or a critique of the state’s county clerks.

“County clerks have an important job and a tough job,” Mitchell said, though adding that when it comes to casting a vote, “many citizens are saying, ‘Not so fast.”’

“Technology doesn’t happen in the open, where eyes can see,” Mitchell stated. “We’re asking citizens to trust the answer that comes out of a black box.”

It seems the majority of those who testified at the two-and-a-half hour committee hearing don’t.

“Casting a vote is considered a very solemn act,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, associate director of Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens’ lobbying group.

Flanagan made the mistake of referring to the 2000 Florida election as a “scandal,” at which Sen. Lew Entz, R-Hooper, bristled.

When Flanagan tried to explain and Mitchell reissued his descriptor of “debacle,” Entz replied, “But it wasn’t a scandal.”

“Senator Entz, we’re going to have our English class later,” Local Government Chair Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood, admonished, trying to move the proceedings in the crowded Senate room along.

Entz and Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, ended up voting against the bill, which passed 5 to 2.

Others testifying made the case to return to “the 20th century” and paper ballots.

Coloradan Ken Seaman, who says he’s “very suspicious of machinery” and believes it to be an opportunity for “chicanery,” spoke to his experience monitoring elections in Bosnia and Serbia, where votes were publicly tallied from paper ballots.

Deeming it simple and inexpensive, he admitted it was time-consuming. “But what’s the hurry?” he asked, noting that next-day election results mainly benefit the media.

Having electronic voting machines create a paper record is a good compromise, Mitchell suggested, reminding the committee that SB 198 also mandates a “surprise random audit” by the secretary of state following primary and general elections “for the purpose of comparing the tallies reflected in the voter-verified permanent paper records with the tallies recorded by electronic voting machines or other vote tabulators.”

This type of required audit is not currently in the Blue Ribbon bill, though Davidson said during her press conference that it may be something the commission will discuss in the coming weeks.

In Tuesday’s committee meeting, Sen. Ed Jones, R-Colorado Springs asked Mitchell and Gordon whether the audit would cause any delays in the reporting of results on election night.

“No, it won’t and it shouldn’t,” Mitchell said.

Gordon resorted to humor, referring to Colorado’s governor race in 2006. “The governor will actually not take office until 2009.”

He added that any audit would occur independently of the announcement of results.

SB 198 also differs with the Blue Ribbon bill when it comes to provisional voting. The latter would not allow citizens to cast a provisional ballot from a different precinct than where the voter is registered.

Members of the election commission say allowing voters to vote in other precincts is expensive, increases mistakes by election judges, wreaks havoc with redistricting and prevents citizens from casting votes for all of the races in which they are eligible.

“You’re disenfranchising yourself,” Tupa said.

SB 198 and the Blue Ribbon bill do expand the types of identification citizens can use to register. Both allow potential voters to register with valid student IDs that include a picture; SB 198 adds a certificate of voter registration to that list; and the Blue Ribbon bill includes IDs used by Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

Perhaps casting a broader net, the Blue Ribbon bill also tightens timeframes on the election calendar, enabling ballots to be printed earlier and absentee ballots to be sent sooner, and it stipulates new requirements for voter registration drives (VRDs), obliging them to register with the secretary of state’s office, conform to training standards, and turn in voter registration forms within five days of being signed by the applicant.

Because of problems with VRDs and voter registration fraud in the 2004 election, the bill imposes penalties for the mishandling of forms.

“We don’t want to discourage” voting or voter registration drives, Davidson said, explaining that the Blue Ribbon bill merely “ties some responsibility to the process.”

In addition to verification issues, the election commission also will work toward a means for tracking felons who register to vote. In Colorado in 2004, there were reportedly 120 incidences of felons who voted.

The Blue Ribbon bill is “still a work in progress,” the secretary of state emphasized, unknowingly echoing Gordon’s statements in Tuesday’s committee regarding SB 198.

Proponents of both bills highlight the proactive nature of the measures, which are designed to inspire greater confidence among the state’s voters.

“There’s a thousand ways we want people to be good citizens,” Gordon said, citing soldiers who travel overseas to fight wars and taxpayers who fund the workings of government.

“The American people deserve to have election results they are confident in.”

Rich, L. E. (2005, March 25). Proactive election bills provoke debate, levity: Paper trail mandate to ease voter wariness in technology. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 9, 12.

Comments are closed.