Amid scandal, Colorado is at election storm central: Are we ready?
Monday, October 06, 2008 at 7:29 am
In Colorado, the state with the longest ballot in the country, more than 215,000 new voters have signed up since January. The woman in charge of the state elections department, Holly Lowder, resigned just weeks ago, after her cozy personal relationship with the beneficiary of several state election-related contracts surfaced. Lowder’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Coffman, is himself the target of longstanding ethics complaints and is overseeing an election that he is also running in — to replace retiring Congressman Tom Tancredo. And, oh yeah, Colorado could be the deciding state for the presidential election.
Hold on tight. It could be a bumpy ride.
The latest Mason-Dixon poll, released on Sunday, shows presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama tied exactly at 44 percent statewide.
And that’s about par for Colorado for weeks — fluctuating in the polls between slightly Democratic to slightly Republican on the political maps — and putting the state in the political crosshairs for the first time in memory for both major presidential candidates.
But, as anyone who has turned on a television for the past two months can attest, the presidential election is not the only thing going on in Colorado.
Grab a “Blue Book” — the voter-mandated explanation of the myriad referenda and initiatives and judges up for retention on the statewide ballot — and you’ll get a good idea of what voters and election officials are grappling with. The Blue Book arrived in the mail last week, and at a hefty 176 pages, it’s larger than the phone books of many small towns — Wasilla, Alaska, comes to mind.
Besides the candidates running for office themselves — including one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, a mind-boggling 18 statewide ballot measures are also up for grabs (though a complicated deal between business and labor has knocked four of them out of contention).
And that’s not counting the local school and municipal ballot questions. In all, Colorado’s ballot will be longer than any since 1912.
To give you an idea of how long it may take to plow through the ballot, consider two years ago, when the screed was nearly as long. El Paso County Clerk & Recorder Bob Balink did an unscientific test and reported that an average voter would require 12 minutes in the booth — two minutes longer than allowed by state statute.
That’s right, there is a statute on the books that lets election officials kick voters out of the voting booth after 10 minutes, though Balink was hard-pressed to think of anyone who would actually enforce that rule.
In mid-September, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, joined a group of county clerks and recorders at a press conference designed to highlight the urgency that voters should vote early or by mail to avoid the kind of problems that resulted in long lines and voter frustration two years ago.
Notably absent was Coffman, a Republican and the official who is actually charged with pulling off the election, who is running to replace Tancredo in the heavily GOP 6th Congressional District south of Denver this year.
In retrospect, Coffman hasn’t had much of anything official to say to voters about the historic election just ahead — though he finally weighed in during a Channel 9 news report on Sunday night. In the report, he predicted the highest election turnout in state history.? “I’m stunned at the intensity of the voting registration drives,” Coffman told 9NEWS viewers.
And when it comes to the numerous controversies that have plagued the office he oversees over the past year, the secretary of state — in that office less than two years — has had noticeably little to say.
Consider the highlights:
• Last December the Colorado State Auditor issued a blistering report on the management of the Secretary of State’s Office under Coffman. As the Colorado Independent’s Dan Whipple reported, the auditor’s report found eight major areas of failures in the office, including duplicate voter registration records, voting by dead people and felons, failing to account for $445,000 in federal funds, and numerous conflict-of-interest violations among employees, at least some of which Coffman was aware of. The most widely covered conflict of interest was the allegation that former employee Dan Kopelman had used state voter data in an outside business, a political consulting website Political Live Wire, which serves primarily Republicans.
• In addition, Coffman was dinged for failing to disclose last year the conflict of interest between Phase Line, a political consultant Coffman employed for his congressional campaign who was simultaneously working for Premier Election Systems (formerly Diebold), the sole electronic voting system certified by the secretary of state.
• Then there was the electronic ballot machine decertification and subsequent recertification fiasco that stretched out over several months. Last Dec. 17, Coffman announced he was decertifying three of four types of election machines currently in use in all but 12 of Colorado’s 64 counties — including six of the state’s 10 most populous counties. In layman’s terms, Coffman declared that the electronic machines were unreliable and that they could potentially be hacked. The announcement left clerks and recorders across Colorado scrambling to figure out how they could possibly make necessary adjustments in time for this year’s August primary and November general elections. The day after Christmas last year, Coffman’s office announced his recommendation that voters cast paper ballots at polling places for the 2008 presidential election. Two months later, after the Legislature jumped in, Coffman recertified the machines, deeming them reliable after all.
• A month ago — just weeks before the election — Coffman’s state elections director, Holly Lowder, abruptly resigned amid an outside inquiry involving her longtime relationship with John Paulsen, who has received $183,800 in election-related contracts from the state of Colorado. Turns out, as the Rocky Mountain News reported, that Lowder also lived in a Denver condominium owned by Paulsen and that the two have shared the same phone number. Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, described Lowder’s behavior as possibly illegal. “It appears they’re violating, at a minimum, the state personnel and state laws regarding conflicts of interest — which calls into question all of the contracts that Paulsen has received,” Taylor said. Coffman did not respond directly, but the Rocky reported that officials from his office have asked the attorney general’s office for advice. Meanwhile, SOS spokesman Rich Coolidge reportedly called Taylor’s accusation “completely devoid of facts.”
Which brings us to today, Oct. 6 — the last day to register to vote — and the day marking two weeks before early voting begins in Colorado. Down the line — now including Coffman himself — election officials are urging people to vote from their couches or their kitchen tables.
“I am concerned, yes, I’m actually quite concerned,” says Ken Gordon, the Senate majority leader who lost to Coffman two years ago and is now one of the Democrats vying to replace him as secretary of state. (Coffman is expected to be a shoo-in in the heavily Republican congressional district, leaving Gov. Ritter, a Democrat, to name his replacement.)
“I’m telling people they should vote early, or vote by mail,” says Gordon. “The biggest danger is probably going to be on Election Day and the biggest way to avoid problems is to vote early.”
Says Eagle County Clerk & Recorder Teak Simonton: “We are limited by physical constraints, like parking, and by peoples’ levels of understanding for how they want to vote. No matter what we do, with such a lengthy ballot there will be lines.”
NOTE: Today is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 4 election. To find out how to register, or to check on your voting status, call the Secretary of State’s Office at 303-894-2200 or go to govotecolorado.com.