Ballots in uncontested races costly but required by law

June 20, 2014 Updated: June 20, 2014 at 9:59 am
photo - Over vote committee member Evelyn Kwaak, left, and ballot counter Ann Parker start to examine a mismarked ballot at the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office Wednesday, June 18, 2014 while counting mail-in and drop off ballots before Tuesday's primary election. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Over vote committee member Evelyn Kwaak, left, and ballot counter Ann Parker start to examine a mismarked ballot at the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office Wednesday, June 18, 2014 while counting mail-in and drop off ballots before Tuesday's primary election. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

The primary ballot for Democrat and American Constitution party voters in El Paso and Teller counties have not one contested election for voters to decide.

Yet, state law requires counties to send ballots to all registered voters for those two parties.

In El Paso County that cost was $53,600 to send out 55,618 ballots to Democrats and 794 ballots to American Constitution Party voters. Teller County sent 2,571 ballots to Democrats and 53 to ACP, according to the Teller County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

"Sending out ballots to people that have nothing to vote or choose from angers people," El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams said. "We know because we get calls."

It puzzles Williams, too, whose name appears on the Republican ballot in an uncontested race for Secretary of State. There are, however, several contested GOP primary races on the ballot, including those for the 5th Congressional District and governor.

Williams challenged the issue in 2012 by canceling the uncontested June primary elections for Democrats and ACP voters, but was promptly sued by Secretary of State Scott Gessler and lost in a district court ruling. Williams ultimately sent out the ballots.

But even Gessler at the time said he would support a change in law that would allow counties to save money by canceling elections without contested races. Gessler is running this year in the four-way GOP primary for governor,

"When school districts have no contested races they cancel the election. When municipalities have no contested races they cancel the election," Williams said, noting that in any given year about half the cities in El Paso County will go without an election.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, brought a bill in 2013 that would have allowed counties to cancel elections if there were no contested races.

House Bill 1067 died at its first hearing in a committee known as the "kill committee" for the party in power - in this case the Democrats.

Some of the six Democrats who voted against the bill pointed out that it would cause confusion for state-wide seats that cross county lines.

For example, if El Paso County had no contested Republican races and canceled the GOP primary, would Congressman Doug Lamborn's name appear on the ballots in the four other counties he represents? This year Lamborn is being challenged in the primary by Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, so it wouldn't be an issue.

Some lawmakers felt that would cause a legal issue, allowing some constituents to vote while others would never receive a ballot. It's unclear whether the bill would have allowed counties to leave uncontested races off a ballot they sent out.

Williams testified in favor of the bill alongside Denver Clerk and Recorder Deborah Johnson. Someone from Gessler's office spoke in favor of the bill, too.

But despite the illogic of sending ballots to voters who have no decision to make, thousands of voters have returned ballots.

Williams said his office had received 11,686 Democrat Party ballots on Thursday and 99 from the ACP.

"There's a certain percent that feel obligated, a civic duty, to return their ballots," Williams said.

Plus, state records show which elections voters participate in and which they skip. Some active voters might want to avoid a blemish on the record.

Williams said it takes additional time and staff resources to process those ballots once they come into his office as well, adding to the cost.

After you've dropped your marked ballot off at an election box or forked over 70 cents in postage to get it there in the mail, each vote begins a long process of scrutiny before it's officially counted.

By Thursday the clerk's office hade received more than 45,000 ballots. Part-time staff, many of whom return election after election to help with the task, have started counting each vote.

The process begins with staffers stamping each envelope with an arrival date, then scanning a unique barcode on the outside of the envelope to pull up basic voter information.

That is where staff screens for the possibility of multiple ballots. For example if someone has been issued a corrected or replacement ballot, staff members will see that and be able to check to ensure no ballots from the same voter have already been counted.

If everything checks out, the still-sealed envelope moves on to a station where the same barcode pulls up every signature on file for a voter. Williams said if the signature doesn't match or there is no signature on the envelope, it gets pulled for further scrutiny.

So far 86 ballots have been pulled for not having signatures, he said.

Voters who turn in suspect signatures or forget to sign the envelope get sent a letter notifying them of how they can make their ballot count. Williams said they have until eight days after the election to finish the process.

Once the signature passes muster the envelopes are opened by a three-person team. The first person opens the envelope and pulls out the ballot still in the secrecy sleeve. The second person removes the ballot from the secrecy sleeve and the third person unfolds the ballot and puts it in a box to be sent to the counting room next door.

The counting room is a flurry of activity by mostly temporary staffers who take a box of ballots marked with the number of ballots in each box and run them through a scanner that counts the votes and sends them to a nearby computer.

Williams said the computer is not hooked up to the Internet, and that while the votes are officially in the system at that moment, nothing is tabulated until after 7 p.m. on election day.

Ballots are then put in boxes and stored by the clerk for a minimum of 25 months. Some boxes will be reopened and recounted both by hand and by machine in a post-election audit.


Contact Megan Schrader


Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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