April 6, 2011
Early Tuesday, Colorado Springs City Clerk Kathryn Young said election workers would stay “as long as it takes” to get the job done.
On her website, Young promised to update election results every 30 minutes, starting about 7:15 p.m., and provide the final update on Election Day.
But before 10 p.m., Young sent everybody home without finishing the count. With promises to resume Wednesday morning and release final results by mid-afternoon, the final tallies appeared on the city’s website shortly after 7:30 p.m., although the time stamp on the document said 7:12 p.m.
Young’s decision to halt counting drew criticism as some races, including the neck-and-neck contest between Lisa Czelatdko and Michael Merrifield for City Council District 3, were too close to call.
(Was Young unfairly criticized? Vote in poll.)
On Wednesday, Young said a last-minute surge in ballot returns caused the delay.
“Tuesday morning I was not expecting to receive and process 27,000 ballots,” she said in an email. “Receiving this amount of ballots in one day is unprecedented in any city election.”
Turnout for the election was nearly 60 percent.
The city had been receiving from 4,500 to 8,100 ballots a day before Tuesday.
City spokeswoman Sue Skiffington-Blumberg said it takes about an hour to process 450 ballots.
“By the time you have somebody opening the envelope, verifying the signature, taking the tabs off so we can track that ballot if something needs to be redone or recounted or a question come up, there is a lot of physical labor that takes place,” she said.
“Once the ballots are ready to be put into the machine, it’s a very rapid process, approximately 300 per minute,” she said. “However, getting them to that point takes a lot of physical labor.”
Young tried to put a positive spin on the delay.
“It is wonderful to see that so many people wanted to participate in the process,” she said.
But not everybody was pleased with Young’s decision to stop the count.
“This clerk has got to go,” at-large City Council candidate Ed Bircham said.
With about 10,000 uncounted ballots Tuesday, Bircham was in sixth place in the race for five at-large council seats. About 1,800 votes separated him from fifth-place finisher Tim Leigh.
Under the strong-mayor form of government that voters approved in November, the next mayor will have the power to appoint, among other positions, the city clerk. Previously, the council made the appointment.
Skiffington-Blumberg said Young, who has a “solid history” of conducting elections, planned for various scenarios. But she didn’t anticipate “such a huge rush of last-minute votes coming in in person,” Skiffington-Blumberg said.
“Should she have anticipated that? You know, hindsight is always 20/20,” she said.
“Certainly, I think everyone will look at this and have different opinions on how it could be and should be done different and better in the future,” she said.
“We’ll have an opportunity to do just that come May when we have the runoff, so I hope there will be lessons learned that we will take into account so that we can avoid any delays that might occur.”