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Provisions and the primary

Secretary of State hoping for higher than usual vote participation

By Leigh E. Rich

“We count every ballot. Every ballot counts,” Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson promised at a press conference Tuesday, held with the intention of reminding voters of the federal and state election laws that will take effect in next week’s primary and November’s general election.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 and additional Colorado laws passed by the state legislature in 2003 require voters to, among other things, present valid identification before casting their ballots as well as vote an absentee ballot, if they have applied for one.

“There are some new laws this year,” Davidson said. “This is the first primary election where these laws go into play.”

First, no matter how electors choose to vote—whether early, absentee or the old-fashioned way—proof of identification is required. Acceptable forms include a Colorado driver’s license, a state-issued identification card, a U.S. passport, a copy of a utility bill or bank statement, a Medicare or Medicaid card, or a copy of a U.S. birth certificate or naturalization document.

Colorado law is stricter than the federal HAVA, which requires all voters to present identification when registering to vote.

“Our legislature has come in and said you have to have it at the polling place,” Davidson said.

Next, voters who have requested absentee ballots cannot, unlike in previous years, show up at the polls and vote provisionally.

“If you applied for an absentee ballot,” Davidson stated, “you must vote that absentee ballot.”

In the 2002 election, about half of Colorado’s provisional voters were those who had requested an absentee form but showed up at the polls.

Davidson called this stipulation of Colorado House Bill 1006 “a blessing,” mainly because it will reduce the number of provisional ballots and ease the strain on county clerk and recorder offices, which have 12 days to verify such ballots against three databases. Certified election results may be delayed as much as 15 days.

Electors voting at the polls who do not present proper identification or whose names do not appear on voter registration rolls, Davidson added, will be given a provisional ballot. While federal HAVA regulations, which must be instituted by 2006, work to standardize provisional voting nationwide, Colorado established such ballots before the 2002 election at the urging of Davidson’s Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2001.

If an election is close, provisional ballots, Davidson said, can make the difference.

That was the case in the 2002 race in Congressional District 7 between Bob Beauprez and Mike Feeley. Following a 30-day hang-up of election results and a court case, Beauprez won the House seat by merely 121 votes.

Davidson deemed provisional ballots “a failsafe method” and noted that, by 2006, every county must have the capability to verify signatures.

The frenzy over fraud

Despite the mainstream news media’s focus on the “several hundred” questionable voter registration forms the secretary had to forward to Attorney General Ken Salazar’s office beginning in June, Lisa Doran, a spokeswoman in the Secretary of State’s office, said this does not present a major problem in the election.

While it is “not the attorney general’s policy to discuss any sort of case that’s under investigation,” Doran added, the Secretary of State’s office made mention of the disputed voter registration forms at Tuesday’s briefing in order to give the public a heads up.

“We want people to know,” Doran emphasized, “always keep an eye on your records, no matter what they are.”

Questions have arisen regarding the validity of signatures, addresses or changes of party affiliation on these registration forms in four metro-area counties.

And while “this is not a common occurrence,” Doran explained, “if it turns out to be an issue (for other voters), they can vote a provisional ballot and the county clerks will sort it out.”

Though the word “fraud” was mentioned in several news reports this week, Davidson never used the term during the press conference.

“It’s not election fraud. It would be voter registration fraud, if in fact that’s what the investigation turns up,” Doran said.

Davidson did say many of the problematic forms were “newly registered,” and while some of Colorado’s numerous voter registration drives have been doing “an excellent job,” others “didn’t do as good a job.”

Any changes in future voter registration practices, however, would have to come from the legislature.

“We’ve had some small problems in the past with form content,” Doran said. “(But) because it is a statutory process, if there are going to be changes, it would have to be in the law. What our rules do is clarify” those laws.

In a separate incident, Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, issued a press release Wednesday calling for an investigation of the signature-collecting petitions that would place an Electoral College reform initiative on November’s ballot. If passed, the citizen initiative would proportionally divide Colorado’s nine electoral votes among presidential candidates in upcoming national elections.

Among other allegations, Halaby called the “improprieties in collecting signatures” for the ballot initiative “extremely troubling.”

No official response has been declared as of yet.

“We just don’t see anything at the moment” in terms of altering voter registration efforts, Doran added, though this may depend on the results of the attorney general’s current investigation.

Whether disgruntled over the news media’s attention to this tidbit at Tuesday’s conference, the Secretary of State’s office is more concerned with Colorado voters understanding the new election requirements and knowing they can vote provisionally, even if there appears to be a problem with their registration.

“We don’t want any voter to think they’re going to be disenfranchised,” Doran emphasized.

The ballyhoo over ballots

Not everyone is concerned with potential voter registration or signature gathering irregularities. Others have instead taken issue with safeguarding the actual voting process, particularly in light of technological improvements.

Part of the HAVA funding distributed to states is earmarked for the overhauling of voting equipment. Often, this translates into replacing lever and punch-card voting methods with electronic touch-screen machines that can automatically alert electors of “voting errors.”

HAVA also stipulates, however, that the “voting system shall produce a permanent paper record … available as an official record for any recount”—aka, a voter-verified paper ballot (VVPB).

A local group called Coloradans for Voting Integrity held a rally in mid-July, demanding Secretary Davidson sign a pledge to guarantee ballot security and provide VVPBs for all electronic voting machines.

“The problems that we’re hearing (about),” Davidson said Tuesday, though not referring to any particular group, “we feel have been blown out of proportion. We’ve been using electronic equipment in this state for 20-some years. We have not had any problem with it.”

Davidson explained that all voting equipment is tested before and after elections, and they are certified by independent authorities.

Colorado only has one county, Montrose, that still uses punch cards. The Western Slope county has until 2006 to revamp that system.

Davidson minces no words in response to pressure from groups critical of paperless voting machines.

“That’s what they’d like to do—go back to the paper ballot” and be counted by hand, Davidson declared. “That’s not the way to solve problems. There are problems there,” including the marking of and discarding of ballots.

“Does there need to be a paper receipt? That question hasn’t been answered yet,” she added, explaining that potential problems such as changing the empty rolls of receipt paper and fixing paper jams need to be addressed first. “You (also) don’t want the elector to walk out with it. … We’ve asked the legislature to wait.”

A representative for another group, Citizens for Accurate Mail Ballot Election Results (CAMBER), was asked to leave the testing of Boulder County’s new vote-counting system this week. Al Kolwicz said in a statement that Linda Salas, Boulder’s county clerk, requested Kolwicz’s absence after he submitted sample ballots.

Despite these few incidents, Davidson said that she didn’t expect too many protesters at next Tuesday’s primary.

“We heard one group was protesting because they want to vote on a paper ballot,” she said, adding: “They’re only hurting their party” by not casting their vote.

“I would say to voters, don’t let this get in your way.”

The word on numbers

While only 11 percent of registered electors cast their vote in Colorado’s 2002 primary and 10 percent in the 2000 primary, Davidson is hopeful this year’s numbers will be significantly higher.

“We’d love to have a 35 percent total all the way around,” she said.

Doran explains this expected increase among Colorado’s voters as due to the Coors-Schaffer and Miles-Salazar contests for Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.

“They are pretty high-profile races,” Doran said. “There’s a lot of interest out there.”

Davidson anticipates a 55 percent voter turnout in the general election, with more voters showing up at the polls, she says, than even when Gov. Owens was up for reelection.

“This is a presidential election,” she said. “When you have a presidential election, everything is higher.”

Colorado, she added, also has high rates of early voting and absentee voting. About half of electors vote before the election, with 20 percent voting early and 30 percent absentee.

Colorado’s unpredictable weather and chance of snowstorms in November is one of the major reasons why, Davidson said.

Rich, L. E. (2004, August 6). New laws bring promise of ‘visionary’ voting: Secretary of State hoping for higher than usual vote participation in primary. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 6, 8.

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