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Aspen election group discusses ballot transparency

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – A discussion of whether election ballots should be made available to the public dominated the Aspen Election Commission’s Thursday meeting, although no plans were made to change the city’s rules on the matter.

The ballot-transparency item was added to the meeting agenda at the request of local election-reform crusader Marilyn Marks, even though she is not one of the three commissioners. She participated in the debate with the commissioners – Ward Hauenstein, Bob Leatherman and City Clerk Kathryn Koch -along with City Attorney John Worcester, Assistant City Attorney Jim True, Pitkin County elections manager Dwight Shellman III and others.

Hauenstein kicked off the discussion by saying ballot transparency was not a local issue: Other states and local governments have accepted public inspection of election ballots. He asked the others what would be the harm in allowing other members of the public besides election judges to inspect and count ballots in Aspen elections.

He also asked that everyone set aside any “prejudices” about the issue of election transparency and recent events involving Marks, a frequent critic of the city’s election processes since her loss in the May 2009 mayoral election.

A year ago, Judge James Boyd of the 9th Judicial District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Marks against Koch, which attempted to force the city clerk into releasing ballot images from the 2009 city election. Boyd cited the state constitution, which requires the clerk to keep ballots secret. Marks has appealed Boyd’s ruling.

Hauenstein suggested that the commission and others at the roundtable should look at the broader topic, “that we focus on those issues and not personalities, animosities [or] frictions.”

Leatherman said he doesn’t like the idea of a few people deciding the issue for the local electorate. “My view is we submit that issue to the electorate and we let them decide,” he said. “I want the final decision to be made by the voters themselves.”

Worcester and True said the problem with releasing ballots for public inspection is that Colorado law requires votes to be anonymous and confidential. By letting others inspect ballots or copies of ballots, “You cannot ensure anonymity,” True said.

He cited examples in which those inspecting ballots could figure out how a person voted even if a voter’s name was blacked out on the ballot copy, such as the identification of a voter precinct or special district that only contained a handful of voters; or some other identifying mark, such as a person’s handwriting.

“It will result in the suppression of people’s willingness to vote out of fear that you cannot assure anonymity, and that to me is the bottom line,” True said. “That is where the harm results.”

True said larger cities may have moved toward public transparency of ballots with some success, but anonymity is harder to ensure in a small city like Aspen, where only a few thousand votes are cast in municipal elections.

Marks said she researched other communities that allow ballot inspection and couldn’t find any examples of problems.

“I have not found anybody who knows anything about a formal complaint, lawsuit, informal complaint, anyone who has ever said ‘my ballot has just been discovered, released.’ There doesn’t seem to be a history of this being a problem. So it’s hard to imagine this being such a problem in Aspen.”

She said she agrees with True that “100 percent anonymity” would not occur with ballot transparency, but added that perfect voter privacy doesn’t occur even under current systems.

“It’s a risk that I believe is worth the many rewards of transparency,” Marks said of ballot inspections, noting that it would cut down on ballot-processing errors.

Worcester said he would never vote if he thought that his ballot wasn’t completely anonymous.

In other matters, the commission went over detailed changes in the city’s election code under Ordinance 2 of 2011. The Aspen City Council is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the ordinance during its upcoming meeting Monday. Ballot transparency has not been included in the ordinance.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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