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Pitkin County task force to review voting procedures

Allyn Harvey

Two county commissioners have made it clear that they will oppose any effort to initiate voting by mail in Pitkin County.

Jack Hatfield and Mick Ireland didn’t pull any punches when the issue came up Tuesday, even though mail-in ballots have proven quite popular with voters here and elsewhere around the country.

“It should be equally arduous for everyone who votes,” Ireland said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper saw fit to interrupt at that point, “Or equally simple, Mick?”

“Or equally simple,” Ireland continued, “but the kind of psychic cost of getting to the voting booth should be the same for everyone.”

Hatfield was equally disdainful about the idea of mail-in ballots. “I don’t like mail-in ballots at all – I would never support them,” he said.

The question of balloting and elections is under discussion at the prompting of County Clerk and Recorder Silvia Davis. Davis is responsible for administering elections throughout the county. She came before the commissioners Tuesday to discuss the idea of appointing a task force to look into alternatives to the county’s voting systems.

The county currently uses an electronic punch card voting system. Voters insert a punch card into a slot in the voting booth. The punch card fits underneath the ballot containing the candidates’ names and questions up for election. Voters turn the pages of the ballot booklet and vote on some or all of the offices and questions using a stylus to punch holes in the card. Votes are then tabulated using an electronic counting machine.

Davis vouched for the reliability of punch cards by pointing out that Pitkin County has never had the kind of recount problems that occurred in Florida during the presidential election last fall.

“Contrary to Florida, I think the punch card system is reliable in a lot of ways – it depends on how you administer it,” she said.

Unlike in Florida, where punch cards were inserted into the counting machines directly from the ballot box, Pitkin County requires its election workers to inspect ballots before they are counted. Ballots with hanging chads, the little dimples of paper that are normally pushed out of the punch card by the stylus, are either brushed off and sent through the machine or set aside for further inspection.

“If `chad’ is disconnected by two or more corners, it IS a vote and the chad is removed from the ballot card,” reads the county’s instructions to the voting judges who count ballots. “If `chad’ has one corner disconnected, it IS NOT a vote and the remainder of the ballot needs to be duplicated.”

Like Davis said, errant chads aren’t the issue here, ballot length is. “The issue is that the ballots are getting longer and longer,” Davis said. “By November 2002, I’m probably going to have a real problem fitting everything on.”

In fact, they’ve gotten so long that Davis is forced to use the butterfly balloting methods that caused so much trouble in Florida, where both sides of the ballot pages are used to ask questions or display candidate names.

Starting this November, Snowmass Village elections will be administered by the county as well, Davis said. That won’t mean much this fall, when there are no state or federal elections to fill the ballot, she said, but it will be a problem when the ballot is full next year. Until this year, Snowmass Village administered elections separately from Aspen and Pitkin County, which have had a combined ballot for several years.

Commissioners Hatfield and Dorothea Farris opposed the idea of spending any time or money on a system that they don’t think is broken. “I’m not sure I see the need,” Farris said.

But commissioners Ireland, Clapper and Shellie Roy supported the task force idea.

Davis and the task force, which is expected to include members of the county election commission and the public at large, will have a couple of alternatives to punch cards and mail-in balloting to consider.

One is the direct electronic record system, which allows voters to log their votes on a computer screen. The direct electronic system eliminates the concern about the length of the ballot, because it can be programmed to include as many questions and candidates as necessary. It also eliminates the need for custom voting booths, because the computers can be programmed to accommodate all the different ballots needed throughout the county.

Another possibility is a return to the paper ballot. With modern paper balloting, voters fill in an oval next to a candidate or ballot question to show their preference. The ballots are counted electronically by a machine that is similar to the one that counts punch card ballots.

And, in spite of Hatfield’s and Ireland’s worries about potential voter fraud, the task force is also likely to consider mail-in ballots. The state of Oregon has administered all of its elections by mail-in ballot since the mid-1990s; there are no voting booths or polling places in that state.

Davis said that Pitkin County’s one experiment with mail-in balloting in 1993 proved difficult for her staff and volunteers but was quite popular with voters. A higher percentage of the electorate voted in that off-year election than any before or since, she said.

Davis hopes the task force will have completed its work by the middle or end of this summer. For more information, call the county clerk’s office at 920-5180.

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