Editor’s Note: In the May 7 municipal election, Paul Lopez won 37 percent of the vote, followed by Peg Perl, who won 33 percent. Sarah McCarthy finished third with 30 percent. Because no candidate received more than 50 percent, the top two finishers (Lopez and Perl) will be on the June 4 runoff ballot.
When we set out reporting on Denver’s municipal elections, we heard a common message from candidates: Many residents don’t even realize there’s an election on May 7—an important one in which voters will elect a mayor and City Council members, and will weigh in on ballot measures that could shape the future of the city.
Denver’s municipal elections have historically low turnout—only 24 percent of registered voters cast ballots the last time around—but there’s one race that could actually help boost those numbers. It’s also the contest people might know the least about: the election for Denver’s next County Clerk and Recorder.
The clerk’s job isn’t glamorous, but it is critical to how the city functions. The clerk oversees elections throughout the city and county, maintains and grants access to public records, and issues marriage licenses. The next clerk will also be responsible for instituting a new campaign finance law that Denver voters approved last November. The office serves a largely administrative roll, but it is an essential function of any city government. Debra Johnson has served as clerk since 2011, but she announced in 2017 she wouldn’t seek a third term, opening the door for the three candidates who made the ballot this election cycle. We chatted with each of them to learn why they’re seeking the office and what they’d do if ultimately elected.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Experience: The term-limited councilman has served District 3 for nearly 12 years. Before that he worked as a labor organizer for six years, fighting for workers’ rights in Denver.
Why he’s running: “Not everyone in our city is participating in our elections, and that’s a problem. That means people don’t have equal voice at city hall. It means there is inequity…People don’t vote. Our precincts are low-voter turnout precincts and [that’s] the reason I’m running for clerk and recorder.”
Experience: A public interest attorney, Perl has served as a policy counsel at the Federal Election Commission, as nonpartisan counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee, and more recently as senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch.
Why she’s running: “I came to this because I’m a public interest attorney and I spent the last 15 years working in nonprofits and government. To me, I wanted to focus my work on the base-level issues of access. If our foundations of democracy are strong, like voting rights and access to public [records], then public officials are going to make better decisions. The overall job is to connect the people of Denver to city government.”
Experience: She has served in all three branches of government, including as a court administrator and a state policy and budget analyst. She sought the clerk and recorder office in 2011, but lost in a runoff to Debra Johnson.
Why she’s running: “I’m running because experience and knowledge of Denver make a difference. The depth of my public administration experience sets me apart from the other candidates in terms of managing complex budgets and systems.”
Thoughts On Denver Voting
Paul Lopez:“Denver has a great system in place, we are a national model for how to run elections…We need to make sure we are knocking on every door and engaging in every community. Every single door, making sure people know there’s an election. Democracy is best when everyone participates.”
Sarah McCarthy: “The clerk’s responsibility is to create a voting system that is accessible to all the voters. We need to have a variety of mechanisms for Denver voters while staying as close to paper as possible…Voters shouldn’t have to work hard to find information they need in order to feel like they can vote.”
Peg Perl: “We need to address the turnout gap…In terms of voter education, there are things we can do year-round: talking to people in other places, having more year-round public engagement, and a strategy around what the city does and why it matters. We want people thinking about this stuff all the time, not just two months before an election.”
Thoughts On Public Records
Paul Lopez: “I want to make sure we have all the tools necessary to finish digitizing public records…We are 90 percent done. The clerk’s office isn’t broken. The records office isn’t broken. They’re doing a great job. I want to make sure we’re continuing to give the resources to get the last 10 percent completed. I’m going to make sure every public record in this city is just clicks away.”
Sarah McCarthy: “I would look to working more closely with Denver Public Library, who I think does a good job making historical records accessible…Not everybody has access to the internet. We need to maintain some records on paper. I would return some things to paper.”
Peg Perl: “There are documents that we didn’t even know existed in the clerk’s office that do exist. They’re public records, but you have to know they exist and you have to know to ask for them…We need to do a better job letting people know what public records exist, and the next step is getting them accessible and online.”
One More Thing
Paul Lopez: “I love being a councilman. I’ve had an amazing district. I’ve worked with people all across the city. I’ve been able to build a lot of great relationships. Everything I’ve learned as a councilman I can now apply city-wide.”
Sarah McCarthy: “There will always be ways of improving the system; it’s a matter of identifying where the priorities are and putting the resources to those priorities. To me, cleaning up the website will be one of the priorities.”
Peg Perl: “There are structural things we need to look at. I’d like to really start the process of having conversations and looking into what are really the pros and cons of having [elections in May] and doing runoffs the way we do, instead of having an instant runoff or rank-choice voting.”