Published: September 9, 2013
What a difference a year can make when it comes to elections. Last year, Colorado received kudos for running a great election; increased voter turnout to third best in the country; a dramatic jump in military and overseas voters; increased election integrity and fewer election-day problems than seen in the past. In fact, a Romney campaign attorney from Colorado jokingly expressed disappointment that Colorado was the only battleground state that didn't get sued last November, preventing him from coming home to litigate a case.
Even though Colorado ran a great election last November, and even though our state has plenty of experience running recall elections, the two legislative recall elections this year have generated plenty of litigation, administrative problems, deep concerns about election integrity, and continuous uncertainty and controversy over the process. In short, the quality of our election has gone down.
Why the sudden change? Frankly, it's because last session the Democratic majority in the legislature rammed through a partisan bill without thinking through the changes. We are now grappling with the fallout.
I can identify at least three big problems with the new law that have hurt our elections.
First is a rush to failure. Any major rewrite of our election laws should be carefully considered and carefully implemented - especially one that mandates mail-ballot elections, eliminates precinct voting and mandates vote centers, and creates same-day voter registration. The drafters originally set a November 2014 start date, but then cynically accelerated the start once voters started the recall elections. In fact, I confronted Governor John Hickenlooper with the report from the 2006 election meltdown in Denver - an election he remembers well because he was mayor at the time. That report identified two problems - new, mandatory service centers, and rushed deadlines. He, like others, ignored lessons from the past, and we've paid a price - confusion over the number of vote centers, forced shut-downs of motor vehicle services, lines caused by disrupted internet connectivity, and general confusion about procedures.
Second is a single point of failure. The new law mandated all-mail ballots, and when a court struck down statutory deadlines because the constitution gave candidates more time to get on the ballot, Colorado's single-minded focus on mail ballots threw the election into turmoil. Local officials had to scrap all of their planning and start over with only a few weeks notice. And we should be mindful of future problems - our elections depend wholly on the U.S. mail, even though costs are going up and mail service is going down.
Third is a reduction in election integrity. By loosening the residency requirement, creating same-day voter registration, and ignoring the need for photo identification, the legislature has created confusion and the potential for fraud. A judge recently - and wrongly - struck down my rules that voters should actually live in the district. And two legislators who pushed the new law now claim that requiring voters to live in the district that they vote in is "suppression." That's absurd. Legislative elections are for people who live in the district - not those who merely "intend" to live there. But the law is ambiguous, undermining confidence in the elections.
Despite incredibly flawed laws, there is plenty of good news. We have dedicated, hard-working election officials who are working to run a good election.
My office isn't standing by idly - I have deployed staff members to help local officials and resolve problems. We've increased the role of election watchers, and parties now have the undeniable right to certify their own election judges, so there will be plenty of eyes on the process.
And finally, the increased attention on this election has two huge benefits. Turnout may increase, and everyone will be vigilant about problems and potential problems. The bottom line is that more citizen participation usually results in a better election.
And a final benefit? All of the attention has revealed the new election law's many problems. Now we will have a chance to fix its mistakes. But only if those who created the problems are willing to listen.
Scott Gessler is the secretary of state of Colorado.