Secretary Williams heads south and west for latest clerks’ visit

R O A D   T R I P

Secretary Wayne Williams stands on a county road leading into San Luis in Costilla County. Late Monday he wrapped up a road tour that included county clerk visits, meetings with newspaper editors and a League of Women Voters forum in Durango. (SOS photo)

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams admired the scenery and marveled at the warm weather during his visits with five county clerks who share a border with New Mexico to see how the southern Colorado officials fared in the Nov. 7 election.

For the most part, pretty dang good considering  the clerks for the first time used new equipment from Dominion Voting Systems, and they successfully completed the first ever post-election risk-limiting audit.

Williams met with Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell in Cortez, La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker in Durango,  Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid in Pagosa Springs, Conejos County Clerk Lawrence Gallegos in Conejos and Costilla County Clerk Karen Garcia in San Luis.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams visited five counties on the New Mexico border on his last clerks’ visit.

In every county, he asked the clerks and their staffs, “Are you getting what you need from our office?”

And the answer always made Williams smile.

Williams visited all 64 clerks’ offices during his first two years in office, and is on his second round of visits.

“I love visiting with Colorado’s county clerks and other concerned citizens about elections,” the secretary said after the trip.

“I am particularly gratified by the reception we received, whether at the League of Women Voters forum in Durango or at remote county clerk’s office. So often people in southwestern Colorado feel isolated from the state. Their TV stations come out of New Mexico, and they feel like state officials only show up when a river changes color.”

Here’s a look at each county visit:

M O N T E Z U M A 

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell hold two of the dozens of Snoopy memorabilia that adorns her office in Cortez. (SOS photo)

A Snoopy piggy bank. A Snoopy license plate. A big Snoopy stuffed animal on the filing cabinet. A vase, a calendar and more.

Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell explained to Secretary Williams during his visit Friday why her office is full of keepsakes of Charlie Brown’s beagle.

Her son Kevin spent six months in Children’s Hospital in Denver. A virus had attacked his liver and then spread to other organs, including his lungs. Doctors put him in a drug- induced coma and physical therapists worked with his hands to keep them from curling. During sessions, they had Kevin squeeze a towel and then they would unbend his fingers.

“He liked dogs so I went to the gift shop and bought a Snoopy. He squeezed that during therapy,” she said.

Kevin was buried with that Snoopy when he died in 1997 at the age of 9.

“Every since then I’ve been a Snoopy fiend,” she said. “I probably have more than 100 of them.”

Percell started work at the clerk’s office in 2005, and Montezuma County voters in 2014 elected her clerk. Although two of her election staffers, Sara Berry and Miranda Warren, only joined the staff shortly before the Nov. 7 election, her office aced the risk-limiting audit, which was covered by The Denver Post.  The staff raved about Dominion — Percell told Williams the system is so efficient her staff easily finished on election night and in the past  they have been known to work into the wee hours.

“It was a great visit,” Percell said. “It is wonderful that the secretary makes an effort to visit the counties and to let us know that we’re not alone.”

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L A  ­ P L A T A

La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker echoed her neighboring clerk’s sentiment when she met with Williams at her office Friday, and again when she introduced him Saturday at a League of Women’s Voter forum at the Durango Public Library.

“I’ve never met with a secretary more than I have with Wayne in my 21 years of being in the clerk and recorders office,” said Parker, who has worked under six other secretaries of state.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams talks to the League of Women Voters of La Plata County in Durango on Saturday. He focused on how primary elections will change starting next year with unaffiliated voters receiving ballots. (SOS photo)

“He’s very open and he likes to connect with us one on one. He likes to meet our staffs. He likes to know know what’s happening on the ground. For us down in this neck of the woods, it’s really important,” she said.

“He met with me yesterday and we were able to recap this last election, how it worked, what isn’t working and then looking to future and what is going to happen with us next year. I appreciate it.”

What is going to happen is for the first time in Colorado history, unaffiliated voters will be mailed ballots for the Democratic and Republican primaries and will have to decide which ballot they want to mark. That’s because voters in 2016 passed Proposition 108, which allows unaffiliated voters to participate without declaring to be a member of either the Democrat or Republican party. The issue dominated Williams’ talk with the League of Women Voters — read about it in The Durango Herald.

During his visit with Parker and her elections director, Erin Hutchins, there was plenty of discussion about the ease of the new voting system. After a multi-year project that included piloting four vendors in the 2015 election, Williams adopted specific standards to increase the security and integrity of Colorado elections. Since that time 57 of Colorado’s 64 County Clerks have purchased Dominion Voting Systems, the only vendor who has met those more stringent standards.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams visits with La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Parker, left, and her elections director, Erin Hutchins, right. (SOS photo)

Parker said her crew finished counting ballots by 8:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

“We sent election judges home early for the first time ever,” Parker said. “I sent one team home after lunch. ”

Under the previous system, election judges would visually scan a ballot before putting it through tabulation equipment.

If the voter filled in a circle and then crossed it out and selected another candidate, for example, the Republican and Democrat judge inspecting the ballot would determine intent. The entire ballot would have to be duplicated before it was actually run through the machine.

“The duplicates killed us,” Parker said. “It took hours and hours and multiple teams to process ballots in a big election.”

With Dominion, a bi-partisan team still pre-inspects the ballots to make sure there aren’t rips or food stains or other issues that can jam up a machine. But the Dominion software is able to flag ballots where voter intent isn’t clear. The judging team then can determine intent and use the software to make clear what the voter intended.  The rest of the ballot remains untouched.

“We love Dominion,” Parker said.

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A R C H U L E T A 

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams visits with the Archuleta County Clerk and Recorder’s office in Pagosa Springs. He is with elections administrator Kristy Arzu, left, and Clerk June Madrid, center. (SOS photo)

Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid also is a fan of the new voting system.

“The way Dominion worked, it was amazing” she said, noting the speed in which Dominion tabulates ballots, compared to earlier voting systems. “It’s wham! wham! wham! It’s just a blessing.”

Madrid has nearly three decades of experience handling elections — next year she will celebrate her 30th-anniversary in the office. She has served as clerk since being appointed in 1989, and isn’t running for re-election next year.

Archuleta initially had a glitch with the risk-limiting audit, a procedure that provides strong statistical evidence that the election outcome is right and has a high probability of correcting a wrong outcome. The process involves rolling dice to get a series of random numbers, and using that “seed,” as it it called, to check certain ballots to see if machines tallied them correctly.  But the glitch was caught and Archuleta, like the other counties involved, successfully completed it.

Williams walked over the steps with the clerk.

“Now we have it down for next year,” Madrid said. “I’m so glad the secretary came by.”

Williams arrived at the clerk’s office in Pagosa Springs on Monday right after the staff exchanged gifts before the office opened. As with the other clerks’ offices, there were plenty of Christmas decorations. Madrid said they munched all day on goodies the staff bought.

“Holiday parties are such a morale booster,” she said.

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C O N E J O S

Conejos County is getting a new clerk and recorder. The current officeholder, Lawrence Gallegos, has resigned effective Jan. 1 and commissioners have chosen Nathan Ruybal as his replacement. Gallegos plans to join family members who already have moved to Santa Fe.

Conejos County Clerk Lawrence Gallegos, left, and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams right, with AnnaBelle Gomez, who has worked for the clerk’s office since 1976. (SOS photo)

Gallegos grew up along the New Mexico-Colorado border, a sixth-generation rancher with roots in each state. (Williams drove through a bit of New Mexico in going from Pagosa Springs to Conejos.) Before being appointed clerk in 2006, Gallegos worked for the National Resources Conservation Service, a division within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at its Costilla County office.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams let out a big laugh when he visited the office Monday.  A scale sits by one desk and just a few feet away is a closet filled with candy that courthouse regulars come to raid.

“It’s a way to test willpower,” elections clerk Marci Lucero joked.

Gallegos told Williams their election went well. Only one of three school districts had contested races so only 1,400 ballots went out. The small size made it a good election when using Dominion and performing a risk-limiting audit for the first time, he said.

The secretary visited with AnnaBelle Gomez, who is celebrating her 42nd year in the office. She was 24 when she began in 1976 and will turn 66 next month.

“Where did the time go?” she asked.

Despite her tenure, she has only worked under three clerks — Ruybal will be the fourth — as Conejos does not have term limits for clerks. Williams asked Gomez how many secretaries of state have held office in her time, and she just smiled and waved her hand.  For the record, Williams is her ninth secretary of state.

“It was a good visit,” Gallegos said. “Wayne’s a good secretary of state.”

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C O S T I L L A

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams visited the Costilla County Clerk’s office on Monday. With him, left to right, is Clerk Karen Garcia, chief deputy clerk Najondine Placek, and election clerk Miranda Esquibel. (SOS photo)

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams isn’t known to arrive early to events, which is why Costilla County Clerk Karen Garcia was gone when he showed up at her office in San Luis shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday.

Garcia and two of her staffers,  chief deputy clerk Najondine Placek and election clerk Miranda Esquibel, had to run an errand in Blanca so decided to take their lunch break  But they canceled their lunch and headed back to meet with the secretary.

Williams noted that the front of the county offices still aren’t marked, which is why the last time he was in San Luis he had to finally stop and ask someone for directions. Garcia said she talked to the road-and-bridge superintendent and he told her to get a sign and bill the county.

Costilla County oversaw two school board elections, and “Dominion and the audit, they all went fine,” she told Williams.

Garcia has worked for the clerk’s office since 1986, and was elected clerk in 2010. Costilla is one of the few small counties in the state that has not waived term limits for clerks so 2018 is her last year in office.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said.

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