Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Voters accuse county of deceptive wording on ballot

DEBBIE KELLEY Updated: November 9, 2010 at 12:00 am

A brouhaha over the wording of a trio of ballot measures to extend term limits for county officials began simmering just before last week’s election and now has some voters boiling mad.

The proposals, to lengthen from two to three consecutive terms the 4th Judicial District Attorney, El Paso County commissioners and the county treasurer, assessor, surveyor, and clerk and recorder, all passed with more than 60  percent of the vote.

The questions read: “Shall persons elected to the office of ... be limited to serving three consecutive terms, a modification of the current limits permitted...”  

Community activist Rick Wehner, a retired engineer, calls the wording “disingenuous” and doesn’t think he’s alone.

Wehner e-mailed an informal survey to 819 local professional, social and political associates immediately following the Nov. 2 election and said Tuesday he has received 244 responses.

The results: 89 percent thought the wording was “confusing,” as opposed to “clear;” 79 percent thought it was written as to be “intentionally misleading;” and more than half indicated that they voted incorrectly by marking “yes,” when they meant to vote against extending term limits.

Voter Steve Nolte said he thought the questions were “intentionally drafted to be misleading.”

“It needed to be asked more simplistically,” he said.

County Commissioner Sallie Clark said the wording was “simple,” “straightforward” and “basic,” and said in no way was it intended to trick voters.

“I think voters were smart and deliberate in casting their votes. That’s why we have elections – so people can decide – and at a certain point we just need to move on,” she said.

Clark said the sentence structure was similar to other counties’ ballot measures. In 1994, Colorado voters approved limiting state officers holders to two terms, but those limits can be exempted by local governments.

More than half of the state’s 64 counties have extended the terms of commissioners, according to Colorado Counties Inc., a membership organization for elected city and county officials.

Ballot language has varied from vague to specific, and El Paso County’s wording was “not atypical,” said Chip Taylor, executive director.

For example, Weld County’s was along the lines of El Paso County’s saying “no person shall serve more than three consecutive terms.”

But Pam Berry, who ran for Clark’s commission seat in 2008, said the fact that local voters rejected similar measures for the county treasurer and clerk and recorder offices in 2006, indicates confusion. Voters did approve a term extension for the sheriff that year though.

The ballot language in 2006 was different: “Shall the voters of El Paso County have the right to elect the clerk and recorder to a third consecutive term beyond the current limitation of two consecutive terms...”

“It’s interesting we had such a flip-flop – voters gave a resounding ‘no’ last time. I can only assume voters were misled with the wording,” Berry said.

Wehner said his supporters have discussed taking legal action or filing a recall petition.

“I’m really not sure if anything can be done now,” he said, “We’re trying to gather a feel for people who normally don’t have a voice in county government to be able to voice their displeasure.”

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