Colorado county clerks hope lawmakers fix early-voting rules

Members of the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission watch the clip from VICE News about the Secretary of State’s ” war-games, election style,” exercise in September. Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, second from left, was prominently featured in the show. (SOS Photo)

County clerks say a state law that dictates how many early-voting election facilities they must operate should be changed to allow local governments to make that decision.

They made their appeal Wednesday during the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission meeting, the last one under outgoing Secretary of State Wayne Williams. He assembled the group in 2016 to provide feedback on elections.

The clerks have argued through several elections that the number of voters who visit the Voter Service and Polling Centers, or VSPCs, particularly in the first week they are open, doesn’t make sense because of the low turnout. Clerks would like to devote the resources  where they need them.

Logan County Clerk Pam Bacon noted that her in-person voting center is the courthouse in Sterling, but she is required to open two additional facilities in the county on Election Day.

“I had 20 people at one location and six at the other,” she said. “Those two extra locations short me where I need hands the most, which is at the county office.”

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Michael Valdez with the Special District Association, who serves on the Bipartisan Election Advisory Committee. Behind them is Melissa Polk, an attorney in the SOS’ elections division. (SOS photo)

Williams also discussed Colorado’s record turnout in the mid-term election — second in the nation behind Minnesota — and his office’s nationally lauded efforts on election security.

“Our clerks did a phenomenal job. Our staff did a phenomenal job as well,” Williams said. “I want to say thank you to all of them for that.”

Douglas County Clerk Merlin Klotz returned the compliment.

“Where Colorado stands as far as the most secure place to vote speaks for the entire team and the job you’ve done,” he told Williams.

Williams and election director Judd Choate provided various statistics regarding the 2018 election, including:

16,953 ballots were rejected because of signature or ID issues.

2,244 ballots came in after the 7 p.m. deadline and were not counted.

95 percent of Coloradans voted by mail. Of that, 24 percent sent their ballot through the U.S. Postal Service, while 76 percent used 24-hour drop boxes provided by their county.

As for early-voting centers, the number each county is required to open was determined by the legislature in 2013 when it passed House Bill 1303, making Colorado a mail-ballot state but with in-person centers.

Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane said during the first week an average of one person per hour voted. During the second week, it doubled to two people per hour per center.

Two years ago, it cost the county $85,000 to run its 11 centers the first week when only slightly more than 1,600 people voted, making the cost per vote $52.17. The following week the cost dropped to $23 a vote, which is still “astronomical” compared to the cost of ballots that are mailed in or dropped off at a ballot box, he said. Those costs average about $2 per vote in metro counties.

Colorado Wayne Williams with three members of the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission before the start of Wednesday’s meeting. From left to right: Martha Tierney, attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party; Williams; Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause; and Jennifer Levin, with Disability Law Colorado. (SOS photo)

Crane doesn’t have the figures for the 2018 election yet, but he said it’s going to be even more costly because the statutory mandate required Arapahoe County to open another early-vote center this year although election officials knew the turnout would be smaller than it was in the presidential election.

“The VSPC formulas ignore turnout and voter behavior,” he said. “We can and should do better.”

The Douglas County clerk said he is required to have seven locations, but could get by with four.

“This is something that should be done individually at the local level,” Klotz said. “A lot of these issues, it’s too easy for us to put in rule or in statute. We really should be looking at what what fits in a particular county.”

Martha Tierney, the attorney for the Colorado Democratic Party and a member of the advisory committee, didn’t say anything. But she objected the last time clerks made an appeal for the legislature to allow clerks to reduce the number of voting centers.

“We saw two- and three-hour lines (on Election Day),” she said, during the January 2017 meeting. “Let’s not forget that.”

That didn’t happen this election. Denver County experienced long lines in 2016, but this time around they anticipated a high turnout and so opened extra VSPCs, Clerk Debra Johnson said. All of the voting centers were able to close earlier than they did two years ago.

“The election went really well,” she said. “The only problem is, is we had three cards, both sides, so we were counting for days and days and days.”

Also attending the hearing was Secretary-of State elect Jena Griswold, who earlier in the day met with SOS division heads and others in preparation for the transition on Jan. 8 when she is sworn into office.

Secretary of State elect Jena Griswold, left in the first row, attended the Bipartisan Election Advisory Commission hearing Wednesday. Elections director Judd Choate is seated at the table. Behind him is Griswold, Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association and the SOS’ IT director, Trevor Timmons. In the second row, left to right: Todd Davidson with the Arapahoe County Clerk’s Office; Dan Volkosh, with Denver Elections; and two SOS staffers, Caleb Thornton in elections and chief of staff Gary Zimmerman, behind Timmons. (SOS photo)