Lawmakers move ahead with paper ballots; scanners still in limbo
February 26, 2008
DENVER – Legislative leaders said Tuesday they’re moving ahead with a proposal to conduct this year’s elections mainly by paper ballot even though most counties still don’t know whether they’ll be able to use their optical scanners to count the ballots.The bill assumes that most of the scanners will be recertified by the secretary of state but still would set aside $3.5 million to reimburse counties who want to buy more scanners so they can count ballots more quickly, Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver, said. The price tag could rise if some of the scanners aren’t approved for use in this year’s primary and general election.Plans for Colorado’s elections were thrown into confusion in December when Secretary of State Mike Coffman decertified most of the state’s electronic voting machines because of security and accuracy concerns.Since then, lawmakers gave him permission to retest different fixes for the machines. He has recertified three kinds of touch-screen voting machines, which records votes, but is still considering what to do about two brands of optical scanners, which are used to count paper ballots.Because of questions over the accuracy of the machines, lawmakers said switching to a mostly paper ballot election was the best way to ensure that everyone’s vote would be counted since the paper ballots would be available for recounts. However, they acknowledged that taking the low-tech approach could delay election results, which they said was less important than ensuring confidence in the process.”Our job isn’t to make sure that by 7:15 everyone in Colorado knows who won,” House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder said.Lawmakers said voters could help speed up the process by voting early or by mail, which would leave fewer ballots to count on Election Day. Federal law still requires that an electronic voting machine be provided at each polling place for any disabled voter and anyone else who wants them. The bill would require all voters be given a paper ballot at a polling place unless they ask to use an electronic machine.Clerks are also concerned about using a new voter database that will be used statewide for the first time this year. In a letter to clerks Tuesday, Gov. Bill Ritter said an independent review has found that the system, required by federal law, is “fundamentally sound” but requires some technical and organization changes. He said Coffman would contact them in the coming days to talk about the changes.Coffman, meanwhile, met with county clerks in Douglas County on Tuesday to discuss whether to recertify the Hart InterCivic optical scanner used by Douglas, Boulder and 45 smaller counties. He said he would make a decision on that scanner by Friday.At issue is whether scanners will read stray marks as votes in races where a voter hasn’t made a selection.Douglas County officials said they check all ballots for everything from stray marks to food stains and staples, as well as making sure they’re flat, before feeding them into scanners. Clerk Jack Arrowsmith said the chances of a stray mark ending up on a selection box is very low and it would be even rarer for such a thing to happen and to affect the outcome of a tight race.Coffman is weighing whether checking all the ballots before they’re scanned is enough of a safeguard against stray marks being wrongly counted. He also said the automatic recount required when races are closer than one half of a percent could be another check on stray marks.Voting activists, meanwhile, say state testers have missed bigger problems with the voting machines. Al Kolwicz of the Colorado Voter Group said the Hart ballots are marked with a serial number which violates the constitutional requirement that voters cast secret ballots.”We’re being misdirected from the big problems to a little problem that we might be able to solve,” Kolwicz said.Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs said that objection has been rejected by the courts.Coffman said he hopes to avoid any court challenge by activists suspicious of electronic voting machines before the elections and will ask the attorney general to review his decision on the Hart scanners before announcing it. He said he won’t certify the machines unless he thinks they are safe and accurate.”It’s better to make the right decision than take a short cut and roll the dice,” he said.On Monday, Coffman recertified touch-screen machines equipment made by Sequoia Voting Systems, used in Arapahoe, Denver, Elbert and Pueblo counties, and Election Systems and Software, used in Jefferson and Mesa counties.Colorado is one of five states considering a return to all-paper elections after having problems changing to electronic systems, according to a report released last week by Electionline, a project of The Pew Center on the States.The other states are Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, and California, according to the study.