County clerks ponder impacts of state election reform
April 19, 2013
ASPEN – While Colorado legislators are looking at an elections overhaul largely along partisan lines, area county clerks say the operational and financial ramifications of the proposed changes are uppermost in their minds.Democrats in the House approved the Voter Access & Modernized Elections Act on Friday on a party-line vote amid opposition from Republicans. The bill now moves to the Colorado Senate.Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill plans to brief county commissioners on the bill Tuesday. Vos Caudill said Friday that she and new county Elections Manager William Mast are working to quantify the impact that the changes would have on the cost of running elections at the county level and to determine what the new rules would mean for the process of conducting an election.The bill mandates sending a mail ballot to every Colorado voter; eases deadlines, allowing voter registration up to and on election day; and calls for “voting centers” that allow voters to cast a ballot from any location in their county rather than at their designated, precinct polling place. Even though all registered voters would get a ballot in the mail, they still would have the option to vote in person on election day.”Everything that’s in the bill has been presented to the General Assembly before,” Vos Caudill said. “This is nothing new.”Past deliberations, however, have not led to the changes that are now contemplated with the latest legislation, House Bill 13-1303.
The Colorado County Clerks Association has polled the state’s 64 clerks on the bill and found support from about 75 percent of them, according to Vos Caudill, who said she has remained neutral because it’s a partisan issue and she is unaffiliated with a party.The legislation was a topic of discussion among county clerks from around the Western Slope who convened in Glenwood Springs this week, she confirmed.Vos Caudill said she has some concerns about the legislation but sees positives in it, as well. She anticipates that the cost of conducting an election in the county would decrease if the bill becomes law.In fact, Vos Caudill will seek approval from commissioners on Wednesday to conduct a mail-ballot election in November because commissioners agreed during budget deliberations last fall that odd-year elections in 2013, 2015 and 2017 should be done via mail rather than election-day polling places. The roughly $117,000 budget for the November 2013 election can be reduced by $25,000 as a result, according to Vos Caudill.
Teak Simonton, Eagle County Clerk and Recorder and a Democrat, said she supports the bill and said there are Republican clerks who do, as well.”I think it’s great customer service,” she said. Most voters in Eagle County prefer mail ballots already, said Simonton, and establishing three voting centers will be far less expensive than running precinct polling places. She predicted Eagle County will save $80,000 in a presidential election year by foregoing 15 different precinct polling places.Eagle County extends into the Roaring Fork Valley, taking in a sliver of the midvalley, including El Jebel and parts of Basalt and Missouri Heights. One voting center would be in El Jebel, Simonton said.”We already send 80 percent of our voters ballots because they’ve requested them,” she added.Statewide in the November 2012 general election, 10 percent voted early, 72 percent voted by mail and 16 percent voted at the polls, according to Vos Caudill. In Pitkin County, 27 percent voted early (casting a ballot in person at the clerk’s office), 45 percent voted by mail and 26 percent voted at the polls, she said.Democrats say their goal with the legislation is to increase voter turnout and access to the polls for every eligible elector.The voting centers, for example, would allow a Basalt resident who works in Aspen to cast a ballot in Aspen on election day if it’s more convenient.”We can accommodate all people’s needs versus having to go to the polling place where you reside,” Vos Caudill said.
Aspen elections activist Marilyn Marks has jumped into the debate over the Voter Access & Modernized Elections Act with The Citizen Center, a nonprofit she founded with a focus on accountability in government and election transparency. The organization sent a 21-question survey to all of the state’s county clerks, seeking their opinions on the bill and asking detailed questions related to cost impacts and procedural issues. Marks said Friday she had received little response from the inquiry.The center, she said, had supported an “opt-out” amendment for voters who don’t want ballots sent to their homes or post-office boxes; it was among more than a dozen unsuccessful amendments proposed by Republicans.Marks, in an email that went to Pitkin County commissioners, as well as the local chairpersons of the Republican and Democratic parties, called the bill “costly” and “voter-unfriendly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.