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The Many Reasons Why Colorado Is on Election Watch

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Dan Seligson is watching Colorado–closely. And it’s not a good thing to be on his radar.

As the editor of the “nonpartisan, non-advocacy” ElectionLine.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States, he’s tracked democratic meltdowns of the past–elections that veer off course, leaving partisan lawyers rolling up their sleeves to sort out the mess.

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Colorado, Seligson says, is among a handful of states across the nation where an event like that just might happen. Lawyers are already poised, he confirms, to step in should Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain net a slim victory in Colorado, arguing over ballots and the election process, just as President George W. Bush and Al Gore did eight years ago.

That won’t happen here, says Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who claims the clerks administering the election in Colorado’s 64 counties are already “performing admirably.”

Sure, “there’s never been a perfect election,” he admits, and “certainly there will be hiccups here and there.” But overall, 2008 won’t be a repeat of 2006, when election workers in several counties around the state, including Denver, struggled with new machines and procedures, prompting delays so long in some places that some people simply gave up and went home without voting.

End of story? Not for Seligson, who is chock full of qualms. First, he points to the state’s large number of new voters. There are problems in their ranks. About 6,400 failed to check a box on voter registration forms indicating what kind of identification they possess. Subsequently, they were not registered to vote. In recent days, amid media scrutiny, 1,600 have rectified that issue.

Beyond that concern, the ballot is the longest in the nation and is bound to perplex voters with its myriad measures, from ending affirmative action to defining a fertilized human egg as a person.

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“It’s going to take people a long time to vote,” Seligson says, recalling Colorado’s 2006 election nightmare.

In the aftermath, five counties were placed on a “watch list” by Coffman’s office. Four counties have since addressed problems, but Douglas County, one of the most populous–singled out for its long lines and lack of voting resources–remained on the list as of Tuesday. Coolidge says the county has worked to address its problems and that Coffman now “would entertain” removing the county from the list if the county asks.

Getting off Coffman’s watch list isn’t a symbol that a county is fully prepared to face the voting masses. Denver was removed from the list just last week, but within days the city’s Elections Division was again mired in controversy.

This time Denver’s corporate partner, Sequoia Voting Systems, failed to mail 18,000 ballots to voters who requested them. Without the ballots, voters could be forced to cast provisional ballots, which are given to people whose names don’t appear on lists where they expected to vote. If the voters receive those ballots in the mail this week, as promised, they will only have until Friday to put it back in the mail to ensure it will be counted.

Among other potential problems, Coffman was also named in a lawsuit over the weekend.

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The suit, filed by the Advancement Project, a “national voter protection organization,” claims Coffman’s purge of 16,000 to 30,000 names from Colorado’s voter rolls was illegal, arguing that Coffman implemented a law requiring cancellation of new registrations if a mail notice that can’t be forwarded is returned by the Postal Service within 20 days. The suit also argues that Coffman removed tens of thousands of voters from rolls within 90 days of the election, an apparent violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

Coolidge says Coffman has followed the law and is prepared to argue in court this afternoon.

There’s yet another issue looming: the potential for a conflict of interest. Coffman happens to be running for Congress, meaning he’s technically overseeing his own election. To Coolidge, it’s a non-issue. That’s how the system works across the nation.

Seligson, agrees, but can’t help recalling controversies of the past, such when Florida’s Katherine Harris, former secretary of state and George W. Bush campaign co-chair, approved a broad purge in voter rolls prior to the 2000 election, leading to allegations of abuse and even conspiracy.

Yet Coffman hasn’t faced too much criticism along those lines, Seligson notes, saying there’s no reason to think he isn’t taking his job seriously. But Coffman is in a “tough position,” Seligson adds, particularly if the election is close.

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And that reveals yet another concern: With a close race, provisional ballots would come into play, bringing the possibility of lawyers looking over the shoulders of election clerks, inspecting each ballot. Those ballots are “always counted” in Colorado, Coolidge reassures. The secretary of state embarks upon a lengthy verification process of provisional ballots in the weeks that follow the election, submitting the official results only after every ballot has been counted, Coolidge adds.

That is, as Seligson says, if the election runs as smoothly as everyone hopes.

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