August 13, 2010
At the edge of El Paso County’s eastern frontier lies the outpost of Ramah, where six election judges sat in town hall for 12 hours on primary election day to record 27 votes.
At some point during this siege there was a problem, and a technician had to drive 45 miles from the county clerk’s office in Colorado Springs so democracy’s wheels could grind on.
Easy now, residents of Ramah, this isn’t intended to single you out. After all, 14 precincts clustered at Harrison High School combined for only 277 votes — an average of just 20 votes apiece.
This year, all 64 Colorado counties had the choice of holding all-mail ballot primary elections or blending that process with the traditional and expensive polling-place method. A total of 46 counties abandoned the polling place model.
El Paso County opted to blend — at an additional cost of about $300,000.
Voters here could mail in their ballots or vote early, and 80 percent of us did just that. Twenty percent of the votes, about 15,000, were cast at polling places. That means each polling-place vote cost us $20.
It didn’t have to be this way. El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink urged the county commissioners to opt out of the polling-place model for the primary election, as the 46 counties decided to do. The commissioners decided that despite the cost, and despite the fact that the county has had mail-in elections before, the polling places would be used.
In Colorado, all counties must provide polling places for the general election, but the primary is a different matter. By definition, voters in the primary election are more passionate and wired into the process than voters in the general election. Primary election voters don’t need polling places; they’ll find a way to get their votes in.
“There’s no valid political reason for doing it,” Balink said.
But the two-term county clerk stressed that saving money is only a secondary reason for moving away from the polling-place model. The better reasons, Balink said, are that it can be shown there are fewer mistakes using the mail-in and early voting methods, and turnout (we had a record turnout in Tuesday’s primary) can still be solid.
Liz Olson, veteran election manager for the clerk’s office, said “There are lots of problems on election day. Sometimes the judges make mistakes.”
In the future, the number of judges could be reduced by going to a vote-center approach. Only about 12-15 “polling places” would be used instead of having hundreds of precincts.
Some people still love their polling places, but they cost too much and technology can help the election process while saving money.
It’s time for a change.