Elections Many problems, many solutions, no guarantees
November 19, 2006
DENVER – The trick to fixing what went wrong in Colorado’s election is that there’s so much to fix.The missteps might have looked the same from county to county – long lines at polling places, long delays in tallying votes. But exactly what broke and where the logjams developed varied widely on Nov. 7.In Montrose, there was a shortage of experienced poll workers working with new voting machines. In Phillips County, the lone scanning machine for absentee ballots broke. In Douglas County, there weren’t enough voting machines.And in Denver, trouble on two fronts: Software that was supposed to verify voter eligibility stalled, backing up lines at new voting centers, and misprinted absentee ballots forced officials to sort them by hand before they could be tallied. A scanner to count the votes broke down, delaying the final count for a week. Denver got so far behind, police officers were called in on a Saturday to sort ballots.Investigative panels are being formed and elections officials are vowing to do better. But there are no guarantees that the gradual switch from paper ballots to sheets counted by computers and scanners is going to be foolproof. Ever.”You can have the 100 percent best machine in the world, but because humans are operating it, things are going to get screwed up,” said University of Colorado political science professor Michael Kanner. “You make the system as good as possible, you account for the predominant errors that you expect to have happen and the rest, you go on faith.”Voters in Douglas County were still in line after midnight on Election Day. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said he saw voters bailing out of long lines without casting a ballot; the Rocky Mountain News reported that turnout in Denver fell 18,000 short of projections.
Even before the last absentee ballots were counted in Denver, city and civic leaders were meeting to figure out solutions. The attention is the one good thing that can come from a muffed election, said Doug Chapin, director of the watchdog group Electionline.org.”Election reform and election changes thrive on crisis,” he said. “Denver is sort of the epicenter of crisis.”Assistant Denver City Attorney David Broadwell, speaking to a panel created to revamp the elections process, said one reason so much went wrong is that there are so many things that can go wrong.Instead of a voter marking a paper ballot for a few candidates at a neighborhood precinct, nearly 65,000 voted absentee in Denver, 25,000 voted early and hundreds cast provisional ballots. Nearly 300 polling places were replaced with 55 voting centers, requiring a computerized link to a central registration database.There were new, federally mandated voting machines to learn, software to manage and hardware to maintain. This year, there were 14 questions on the statewide section of the ballot, meaning it took a lot more time to complete.”There are lots more moving parts in terms of elections,” Broadwell said. “This is an entirely new phenomenon, this level of complexity.”Denver Elections Commission spokesman Alton Dillard said the city had the same number of voting machines – about 1,100 – as it did before switching from precincts to voting centers. He said it’s hard to tell whether people gave up on voting because of the long lines or simply went elsewhere. Preliminary numbers show turnout in Denver this year was nearly 58 percent, down from about 65 percent in the 2002 and 1998 gubernatorial races.
Scott Doyle is the clerk and recorder in Larimer County, credited with implementing the state’s first voting centers where anyone can vote, regardless of what precinct they live in.The concept works there, he said, and can work in Denver. The key is attention to detail.”Once we got our system set up and running, we test, test and then retest,” he said.Voting centers are supposed to be more convenient. Doyle said they also help elections officials, since there are fewer polling places they have to ensure meet federal regulations.After the 2000 presidential election marred by chads and recounts, there was a flood of federal rules aimed at ensuring fairness and security, each adding another piece to the puzzle.”Everybody says, ‘let’s pass more legislation,'” said Douglas County elections chief Carole Murray. “But the more legislation you pass, the more complicated it gets.”Murray, whose county saw huge lines at the polls, said getting it perfect is never going to happen.
“I’ve never had an election, nor do I know of an election that didn’t have a problem,” she said. “After the year 2000, the public learned the dirty little secret that elections are a human process and things happen.”Murray said it was widely understood in elections circles that this year’s election was a test for new electronic machines across the country in preparation for the 2008 presidential election. Voters should expect Colorado to do better then, she said.Chapin said for all the flaws, Colorado was fortunate on two fronts.First, the problems were largely what he called “hassle factor,” and had nothing to do with allegations of inaccuracy, fraud or large-scale disenfranchisement. Plus, Florida grabbed the headlines again with a congressional race that has wound up in court.Kyle Saunders, a Colorado State University political science professor and a student of elections, said Colorado can improve, but it will depend on how long voters stay mad and how much money they’re willing to spend.States that aren’t solidly blue or red, like Colorado, will attract the most scrutiny and generate the most controversy next time. Elections officials need to be prepared, Saunders said.”I’m betting that next time, they’ll be more ready. That doesn’t mean that they’ll be without flaw,” he said. “There will be something, the more competitive the state is, and Colorado is going to be a competitive state coming up in the (2008) elections.”We could end up being a Florida or an Ohio, and that’s a scary thought.”