Pitkin County opts for mail-only fall election
June 23, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin County commissioners agreed Wednesday to a mail-only election in November after an impassioned plea from an overburdened staff in the county Clerk and Recorders Office. It was not, however, an easy decision.
Commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the mail-only approach, eliminating Election Day polling places, with Commissioner Jack Hatfield dissenting.
“Elections are not only about the money. They are about access,” Hatfield said. “To me, we disenfranchise when we don’t have options.”Going to the ballot box is a tradition. … I’m not willing to give that up.”
“We’re cheapening democracy by this action,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, suggesting the move makes it more difficult for some segments of society to vote, particularly low-income residents and young voters who may move frequently.
“This vote is making me sick to my stomach,” she said, though she went along with the staff’s recommendation.
Virtually all Colorado counties will conduct a mail-only election this November, according to Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill. The approach saves money and staff time, and draws a larger turnout, she said, noting the county saw about a 35 percent turnout in 2009, when it conducted the election by mail, versus about 16 percent in 2007, when there were polling places.
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“It’s the issues that determine who shows up,” Hatfield countered.
Vos Caudill said it would cost an additional $28,000 to provide polling places this year, but said over the next five years, conducting polling-place elections in odd years would require additional expenses amounting to $650,000 to $750,000. The cost includes an additional full-time employee in the clerk’s office for a staff overwhelmed by the increasing demands of elections, she said.
The Colorado General Assembly passed 45 pieces of election-related legislation in the last session, noted Dwight Shellman III, elections manager. The county must make sure all of its processes comply with the new directives, retrain its election judges and redraft the training materials it provides to judges. Without polling places this fall, the county can put off the latter two duties, he said.
The elections staff in the clerk’s office is also participating in pilot projects in post-election auditing and online voting, it may have to provide ballots in both English and Spanish this year, and it is in the midst of redistricting, triggered by the 2010 census. It is also preparing for the 2012 general election, which will feature a presidential election. Shellman said.
The ability to conduct mail-only elections in odd years, when no state or federal matters are on the ballot, gives the staff a breather, Vos Caudill said.
“Polling-place elections – until you see it, you just have no idea how much work they are,” Shellman said.
Linda Gustafson, chief deputy clerk, compared conducting a general election to childbirth – you vow you’ll never do it again every time you go through it, she said. Election managers in the county turn over about every two or so years, she said, citing job burnout.
County Treasurer Tom Oken, among the department heads who attended the discussion in support of the clerk’s office, offered an emotional plea on the election staff’s behalf.
“We’re really concerned about the operational impacts on the clerk’s office,” he said.
Shellman assured commissioners the clerk’s office will do its best to reach out to voters. This year, as part of a statewide initiative, it is comparing its voter list to the change-of-address data compiled by the U.S. Postal Service to track down voters at a valid address, he said. A voter who doesn’t receive a ballot in the mail can come to the clerk’s office right up until deadline on election night, get a ballot and vote, he said.
The county is also exploring its ability to offer a place to drop off ballots in Basalt, Shellman said. Voters can mail back a ballot or drop it off with the clerk in an election conducted by mail.
Though the county tries to get the word out to voters, citizens have a responsibility to keep their address information current, Vos Caudill said. (Links to register and update voter registration information are available at http://www.pitkinvotes.org or stop by the clerk’s office.)
Citizens who don’t make that effort are disenfranchising themselves, Shellman said.
“It’s their responsibility. It’s their franchise,” he said.
County commissioners questioned Vos Caudill’s estimate of polling place expenses over the next five years, and Richards asked if the clerk’s office wouldn’t seek any additional staff if the county went with mail-only voting in odd years. Hatfield ultimately suggested commissioners need to address what is apparently an understaffed office.
“If we burn out people that frequently, we simply need to bite the bullet,” he said.
“It’s apparent we have understaffed this department for a long time,” Richards agreed.
Commissioner Michael Owsley agreed to the mail-in ballot, citing the passion and dedication to the task he heard in Wednesday’s discussion, while Commissioner George Newman voiced no qualms about the mail-ballot approach and predicted online voting would eventually be the norm.
“Sometimes old traditions need to be replaced by new traditions,” Newman said.
Commissioner Rob Ittner agreed to support the clerk’s request this fall, but stressed he wasn’t making a long-term commitment to mail-only voting.
General elections, held in even years, must include polling places, Vos Caudill said. Those are the elections that involve state and federal matters. In odd years, when only local issues appear on the November ballot, counties have the option of going with mail-only balloting.
Voters always have the option of registering with their county clerk to receive their ballot in the mail for every election, including general elections, if they so desire.
“A lot of people haven’t chosen permanent mail-in balloting and we’re choosing it for them,” Richards lamented.