Let's Hope the Sixth Time's the Charm

November 2007
Denver seems to have a hell of a time trying to figure out how to either run an election or count ballots (or both).I've written about this before - on many occasions, in fact. Denver had massive problems with their elections in 2006, both in the primary and the general elections, but that was under the old Denver Election Commission. Now Denver has an elected Clerk and Recorder, but things aren't much better than they were before. As Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News wrote yesterday:
Let me say first - just so there's no additional confusion - that this is not a joke.What follows is what Denver election officials actually told the gathered media Wednesday. I was there. I can vouch for the accuracy - and in a timely fashion.The reason, we were informed, that the city and county of Denver was unable to finish counting your votes on Election Day - as, remarkably, many cities and counties around the country were apparently able to do - was a lack of, uh, office space.Yes, office space......Try to follow the logic here. For lack of space, the Denver elections committee apparently couldn't bring in enough election workers to process the many steps it requires to count the ballots (not that they had enough workers lined up, anyway, but that's another story). Therefore, we woke up a day later with about 12,000 ballots still uncounted and some of the measures still undetermined.And, yes, therefore, a SWAT team had to be called in to relieve the volunteer election workers, many of whom, as you know, are seniors and many of whom had unfortunately started to fade/keel over after about the first 14 to 16 hours on the job.
The only thing Denver election officials do worse than run elections is the manner in which they respond to criticism about how bad they are at running elections. Last year they publicly cried about how everybody was - rightly, I should add - criticizing them for screwing up. The excuses weren't gone this year - they were just different. Again, from Littwin:
And we haven't gotten yet to the strangest part, which is this: Denver Election officials found the chaos and confusion to be perfectly acceptable.As an example, there have been no vote updates from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday because the guy - the one guy? - who can do the updates had to go home to rest.Yes, we're a year removed from the voting disaster of 2006, during which people had to wait in line for hours to vote. Yes, we had a special election and a charter change and new people rushed into place so nothing like that would ever happen again in high-tech Denver.Well, there were no long lines this time because, uh, it was a mail-in election. The mail worked. The machines worked. The workers worked, until they started keeling over, trying to count the 22,000 ballots that were dropped off Tuesday.This wasn't a disaster like last year. Call it a situation - and one that looked pretty easy to avoid. Officials were anticipating 10,000 to 20,000 votes Tuesday and got 22,000. How tough could that be?I asked Stephanie O'Malley, the newly elected clerk and recorder, if the slow count was acceptable."It's not unacceptable," she countered.In fact, she said she didn't see how it could have been done any better. Under state law, you have to count votes in a locked room with cameras and with people cleared to do the counting.She added: "We are brand new to this . . . We're doing the best we can with the resources that we have, and we'll continue to count until we get it done."When I asked Michael Scarpello, director of elections, if he thought the slow count was acceptable, he cited resources, too. He said they'd asked for more space. He said they were still asking.And meanwhile: "There's no requirement in the law that says that ballots have to be counted on Election Day."
It's not unacceptable, says the clerk and recorder, that Denver wasn't prepared to quickly and accurately count their ballots.I don't think I'm in the minority here when I say that O'Malley's attitude is unacceptable.Denver is the largest county in the state by population, so their task on Election Day is always going to be a little bigger than others. But Denver also has more resources at their disposal than other counties, and everybody else seems to do just fine. Every other county managed to run their all mail-ballot election smoothly.Running an election doesn't sound like it should be rocket surgery, but maybe it is. In Denver they have now had major problems in four of their last five elections, and the people in charge of running these elections continue to just shrug off the problems and pat themselves on the back by saying, "Hey, we tried hard." Well, that's great, but we're not awarding prizes for trying hard. They say that practice makes perfect, but in this case, practice doesn't even make competent. How many elections have to go wrong before they figure this out?If this doesn't bother you, it should, because this affects you even if you don't live in Denver. Because Denver is the largest county in the state, what happens in Denver will have a major effect on several big races next year. If voting problems are severe enough, they could seriously change the outcome of races for U.S. Senate and President; there are so many more voters in Denver than anywhere else in the state, so results can literally hinge on what happens here.So, yes, that would be unacceptable.