Two weeks ago, I attended a town hall meeting with Governor Bill Ritter and our House Representative Kathleen Curry at the Fred Field Western Heritage Center in Gunnison. During the meeting, Curry asked the 25-member audience about voting in the state and where citizens stood in light of the Colorado Secretary of State’s decision to de-certify much of Colorado’s electronic voting equipment, including the machines used in Gunnison County.
I didn’t have much to say to Curry on the topic that Saturday afternoon so I did some research. What I found is voting in Colorado is such a mess that once you start down the rabbit hole, it’s easy to think you may never emerge. Here’s what I discovered:
As you may recall, in September 2006, a Denver District Court judge ruled that then Secretary of State Gigi Dennis had failed to properly certify the $24 million of electronic voting systems purchased by county clerks to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. The judge declared the machines should be re-certified after the November 2006 election.
Following the order, Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, started an intensive process of testing the machines and in December 2007 announced that all but one company’s machines had failed to meet security requirements. Gunnison County’s machines, manufactured by Hart InterCivic, were faulted for failing to count votes properly.
A political hailstorm of bipartisan politics ensued, fueled by an apparent connection between Coffman’s campaign and the one manufacturer whose machines were allowed, Diebold. Coffman has denied any impropriety.
With the intent of getting the machines re-certified for Colorado’s August primary, Coffman appealed to the state legislature to allow him to retest machines that have undergone software upgrades or other changes. In response, the legislature passed House Bill 1155, which Governor Ritter signed on Monday, February 11. The legislation says that the state’s security standards must be upheld and all re-certifications explained.
Facing the possibility of voter disenfranchisement over the electronic voting fiasco in a Presidential election year, Ritter also introduced a plan to require all Colorado counties use paper ballots at polling stations. Some electronic voting machines—such as those used to count ballots and allow disabled voters to vote unassisted—may be allowed, if they are re-certified in time.
The Colorado County Clerks Association balked at this plan, asking for the legislature to consider an all-mail ballot election, which the clerks say, would allow citizens to cast votes at their leisure, eliminate long lines at the polling stations, and provide faster results. Essentially, the clerks are trying to buy time to deal with ballots in November, in case the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t certify the electronic voting machines, and they’re forced to use older machines or hand count.
Plus, the clerks say, electronic voting systems aren’t the only worry—the state is also instituting a HAVA-mandated statewide voter registration system during this election. The clerks fear the unproven system may crash on Election Day, causing long lines that voters may walk away from. For his part, Coffman has agreed to back the County Clerks.
That brings us to where we are today: Coffman is re-testing the state’s electronic voting machines to ensure security, most counties (including Gunnison) can’t use the machines they have right now, the Governor is steering us toward a paper-ballot-at-precinct solution, and the county clerks still want a mail-in election to avoid a Florida-like fiasco.
Here’s what I think:
The governor is wrong to mandate a one-fit solution for the entire state. It’s simply too burdensome in some counties—particularly those who haven’t used paper ballots since the 1970s—and it could be amazingly expensive, $10 million at least.
Instead, the legislature should pursue a compromise. Counties that need to do so should be allowed to hold a mail-in election (which by its nature would use paper ballots). The rest of the counties, including Gunnison County, can proceed with the Governor’s paper-ballot-at-precinct option, or other solutions of their choice.
When it comes down to it, the clerks were forced to abandon old machines, adopt fraudulent technology and now they’re being asked to adopt a third system with scant time left before what could be the largest election in recent history. Let’s let the clerks steer the ship on this one.