Turnout of active voters in Pitkin County: 51 percent | AspenTimes.com

Turnout of active voters in Pitkin County: 51 percent

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – About half of Pitkin County’s active voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s mail-only election, compared to a turnout of 35 percent in 2009 – another off-year election in which the county conducted an election by mail.

Pitkin County has 10,724 registered voters, of which 8,119 are considered active because they cast ballots in 2010.

Because the county reached out to more than 2,000 inactive voters for the fall election, the total turnout of about 39 percent is skewed, election manager Dwight Shellman III explained to county commissioners Wednesday during a brief recap of voter participation.

Turnout of active voters was 51 percent, according to Janice Vos Caudill, county clerk and recorder. The turnout in 2009 took into account only active voters. Over the past decade, whether the county conducted a mail-in election or offered polling places for odd-year elections, turnout has averaged 30 to 35 percent of active voters.

Though the issues and races on the ballot in any particular year drive voter participation, a 51 percent turnout of active voters was higher than usual.

“I think the turnout was really good,” Vos Caudill said.

Her elections staff lobbied commissioners to permit the mail-only election, rather than running polling places throughout the county on Election Day. It was an easier election to manage and less expensive, according to Vos Caudill, though the cost of various mailings and other expenses associated with this year’s election have yet to be tallied.

Commissioners agreed to take the mail-only approach this year, an action Commissioner Rachel Richards termed “cheapening democracy” at the time the decision was made.

Vos Caudill said she hopes commissioners will consider making mail-only elections the norm in odd years; polling places are required for even-year general elections.

On Wednesday, Richards said she would continue to evaluate the mail-only approach and the clerk’s effort to reach out to inactive voters – something that was not required.

The county mailed ballots to 2,605 voters who had been deemed inactive because they didn’t vote in 2010. Some hadn’t voted since 2008 or earlier. About 130 of those voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, Shellman said.

It’s a small number, but, mused Richards: “How small is too small to matter when it comes to franchisement and your right to vote?”

Those 130 ballots represent roughly 3 percent of the total ballots cast (4,173), Richards noted.

“There have been times when we’ve had an election determined by 3 percent,” she said.

Hundreds of ballots were returned to the clerk’s office as undeliverable, but if the post office had a forwarding address, the voter was sent a letter urging them to update their information so they could receive a ballot. Ballots cannot be forwarded.

Among Richards’ concerns was that voters who move frequently – often renters who may be on the low end of the income spectrum – would be missed with a mail-only election. A segment of the population would be left out, she reasoned. Commissioner Jack Hatfield, too, balked at limiting options for voter participation and pressed for polling places.

Richards also questioned the importance of Election Day in a mail-only election. The mail-in approach gives voters several weeks in which to fill out a ballot and either mail it in or drop it off at the clerk’s office. Election Day can fall off a voter’s radar, she contends.

“One of my big questions is, how many ballots are going to come in on Wednesday?” she said. Mailed ballots that did not arrive by Tuesday’s deadline weren’t counted (there were 20 in Wednesday’s mail, Shellman said later).

However, 1,000 ballots were dropped off in person Tuesday, most of them at the clerk’s office, though 300 were deposited at drop-off points in Basalt and Snowmass Village. Prior to Tuesday, 200 to 300 ballots a day had been coming in to the clerk’s drop-off box, according to Shellman.

“To see 1,000 votes come in on Election Day – that’s significant,” Richards said.

More debate on how best to engage voters in the next odd-year election, in 2013, is likely.

“I’m supportive of whatever method allows the greatest opportunity to participate,” Richards said.