A story in The Washington Post today about Colorado’s stellar election security has been read far and wide — to the delight of those who handle elections in the Centennial State.
“Nationwide, states are taking a variety of measures to bolster their election systems ahead of November, from replacing old equipment to conducting vulnerability tests to hiring new staff,” Post reporter Derek Hawkins wrote. “But few, if any, have gone as far as Colorado has — indeed, many states don’t have the funding to make the upgrades.”
The headline of the article: “How Colorado became the safest state to cast a vote.”
“If people perceive a risk, they’re less likely to participate in voting,” Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams is quoted as saying. “We want to protect people from that threat, and we want to people to perceive that they are protected from that threat.”
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams didn’t expect a trip to the Eastern Plains on Monday to be a white-knuckle, wind-whipping, mud-splattering experience but, after all, it was nearly spring and it is Colorado.
Williams braved snow in Yuma County where he met with Clerk Beverly Winger. He experienced so much wind on the way to see Washington County Clerk Garland Wahl afterward that picture taking on the side of the road proved to be a challenge.
That led him the” back way” from Akron to Hugo on a long stretch of unpaved county roads. Mud splattered the windshield and the car slid from side to side. With 20 miles left to a major road, the “low fuel” light came on and the secretary worried about running out of windshield wiper fluid.
“We made it!” Williams announced when he finally reached the clerk’s office in Hugo, where a surprise was waiting.
Y U M A
Yuma County Clerk Beverly Wenger isn’t sure what to expect for the June 26 primary when unaffiliated voters can automatically participate for the first time in state history.
In order to assist election judges, Republican voters will send their ballots back in red envelopes, Democrats in blue and unaffiliated voters in yellow envelopes, she said. Yuma County has 5,440 active voters, with almost 3,00 registered Republican, 1,621 unaffiliated and 762 Democrats. Unaffiliated voters who do not indicate a preference of whether they want a Republican or a Democrat ballot mailed to them will receive both primary ballots but told to only vote one. If they vote both ballots, both are declared invalid.
“It should in theory work, but this is our first time,” Wenger said, when she met with Secretary Wayne Williams at her office in Wray.
Other county clerks have shared the same fears of ruined ballots and a confused electorate. Wenger said she is going to do everything possible to try to educate unaffiliated voters in her county.
She also talked with Williams her county’s experience using equipment from Dominion Voting Systems for the first time last year.
“We love it. The judges love it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how the judges who are ‘old school’ would do but they love it.”
W A S H I N G T O N
Normally the news that a county doesn’t need to conduct an off-year election is cause for celebration. It means less work for Colorado’s busy county clerks and saves their operations money.
But Washington County Clerk Garland Wahl and her elections director Brandy Ward were disappointed when they learned last year they were one of six counties that weren’t conducting an election because there were no contested races, tax measures, or other issues on the ballot.
Washington County had purchased Dominion Voting Systems equipment and Wahl and was excited to see how it performed in an election because her fellow clerks had raved about it since Williams in 2015 choose the equipment after a pilot program in eight counties.
“We just wanted to see how it worked,” she told Williams. “I guess we’ll find out in June.”
Washington’s a small county — there are only 3,082 active voters — but it is overwhelmingly Republican. In fact, it received an award in 2016 from the Colorado Republican Party for its high participation per capita in that election.
Wahl took the secretary on a tour of Akron, pop. 1,735. She lives about 10 miles north on the land where she and her late husband farmed and raised cattle.
“Akron’s a good place,” she said. “We look out for each other.”
L I N C O L N
For the longest time, Lincoln County Clerk Corinne Lengel resisted an offer from Secretary Williams that other counties were thrilled to accept: help with the cost of installing a 24-hour ballot drop box.
Voters in Lincoln County can currently drop their ballots off in person at the clerk’s office in Hugo, but the new drop box will be located in the county’s biggest town, Limon, about 15 miles away.
Lengel said she hopes to have it ready for the June 26 primary but if not the box will be available by November.
Lengel said it took her a long time to figure out the logistics because the drop box must have round-the-clock electronic security. She also worried about staffing problems driving to and from Limon to empty the box. Williams now has offered clerks an option, where they submit a waiver and don’t need daily box emptying.
Williams has been pushing the 24-hour ballot boxes because voters have learned that the ballots they mail in plenty of time to reach their clerk’s office sometimes don’t. Most of the mail is sent to Denver to be processed and then returned to the county. The drop boxes have proved so popular that in the 2016 general election, 66 percent of voters used a drop box, 27 percent mailed their ballots and 7 percent voted in person.
Before Williams arrived in Hugo, he called the clerk’s office to notify Lengel of his predicament. He was on a county road that was muddy as all get out and difficult to navigate and he was low on fuel. As it turns out, Williams made it to a gas station and then to Hugo, where some staffers laughed about the idea of having to call someone pull the secretary of state out of a ditch. They called him “Mudslinger.”
Williams was pretty unflappable about the drive but full disclosure: I was in the car and I was beyond flappable. Even the boss admitted his hands were stiff from gripping the wheel so hard.
Lengel had a treat for her visitors. When she hosts clerks’ training in her county, she arranges for a friend to bring homemade cinnamon rolls. Our office has raved about them so much she had a platter ready for us.
And because there was no line I decided to renew my driver’s license, which expires in May!
Thanks, Lincoln County, for the sweets and the tweets:
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams and his staff got great reviews from those who attended the Colorado County Clerks Association winter conference, and the secretary was equally complimentary.
“I love working with the clerk and recorders,” he told conference-goers. “You’re not afraid to follow the law, and that’s true whether there’s a recall in Custer County or with someone who submits petitions.”
The three-day conference in Colorado Springs concluded last week, and the clerks will gather again in the summer. The conferences offer workshops on a variety of topics that clerks deal with, including vehicle title registration and recording documents.
County clerks run elections, but the secretary of state is the chief elections officer, and that’s where the SOS comes in to play at conferences. Secretary of State staffers participate in workshops on a variety of topics, including security, ballot access and changes to election laws.
Routt County Clerk Kim Bonner said the “wonderful people at the SOS office” are her staff’s “lifeline.”
Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien praised the SOS and her fellow clerks.
“At every conference, I glean tips, tricks and lessons learned that help me continually improve our processes. I love being able to share our practices as well in a effort to help others across the state,” she said. “In the current political climate, it’s inspiring and encouraging to see so many working towards the same shared goal — excellence!”
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams assured county clerks and election officials that the goal of his office this time of the year is to “make sure you’re ready for the election.”
Williams attended the Colorado County Clerks Association eastern region conference in Limon on Sept. 8. The SOS’ election director, Judd Choate, also spoke at the event.
During the morning session Thursday, the secretary urged clerks to take advantage of the office’s offer to help pay for ballot drop boxes so voters don’t have to mail their ballots. Regardless of when a ballot is mailed, it must be received by the clerk at 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to count.
“I want a drop box in every county,” Williams said.
Baca County Clerk Sharon Dubois said she found the two-day conference “very informative,” noting “it’s a lot easier to understand the details when you are talking about them instead of just reading the rule book.”
“And I loved that Wayne Williams was there,” she added.
Lincoln County Clerk Corinne Lengel appreciated the fact that Secretary of State Wayne Williams drove to her county two days in a row this week.
Williams met with Lengel and her staff in Hugo on Wednesday, which was the last of three county clerk visits that day. He also traveled to see the Otero and Crowley county clerks.
The secretary returned to Lincoln County the next day to address the Colorado County Clerks Association eastern regional meeting in Limon.
“I was really impressed he took the time,” she said. “I’m very happy with the relationship he has made with the clerks.”
Williams couldn’t get over the spacious office space Lengel and her staff share at the Lincoln County Courthouse. In some clerks’ offices workers are shoehorned in but in Hugo Williams joked staffers must have to shout at the next desk to be heard.