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electionlineWeekly — July 18, 2013

Table of Contents

I. In Focus This Week

New Colorado elections law brings changes
Clerks prepare for future elections, some sooner than others

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From early voting to voter ID to online voter registration, Legislatures across the country went to work on election administration legislation in 2013.

While many states worked on individual pieces — or several individual pieces — of election reform legislation, the Colorado General Assembly went at it in one broad piece of legislation.

Colorado’s Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act (House Bill 13-1303) brought in sweeping changes to how voters in The Centennial State register to vote, receive elections information and cast their ballots. The major changes include:

  • Election day registration — residents will be able to register and cast a ballot as late as election day;
  • Vote-by-mail — in all future elections, every registered voter will receive a mail ballot;
  • Vote centers — for those who don’t want to vote-by-mail each county will provide a specific number of election-day vote centers and ballot drop-off locations;
  • Residency — a person is eligible to register to vote if they have established residency at least 22 days prior to the election;
  • Electronic communications — other than ballots and voter information cards, county clerks are now authorized to send all other elections-related materials via email; and
  • Inactive voters — previous election law placed voters on an “inactive” list if they failed to vote in one election, the new law repeals that and all voters will receive ballots.

The new law also creates a voter access and modernization elections commission, which is tasked with evaluating the implementation of the new laws and assessing the state’s voting system for making future changes.

The legislation had the support of many county clerks and the Colorado County Clerks Association (CCCA) that lobbied on behalf of the legislation.

The CCCA approached all legislators in the state late in 2012 asking to be involved in any election reform they might be considering and offered topics in state law that the organization believed needed updated. 

“I was present at one of the meetings held in December 2012, and it was clear to me that the majority of legislators in our state wanted same day voter registration, the bill sponsors thankfully allowed the clerks to offer ideas to improve the system with that goal in mind,” said Sheila Reiner, Mesa County clerk.

For some counties, the new law won’t mean that many changes. In Mesa, the county has been conducting combined vote-by-mail/vote center elections since 2006.

“We began using the full service center model in the primary of 2010 along with all mail ballot delivery,” explained Reiner. “As of the general of 2012, 80 percent of votes cast were mail, 10 percent during early voting and only 10 percent of our ballots cast on Election Day.  So our county has been performing the concepts of what is in this bill for years.” 

Reiner said that now the county will have cleaner rolls with NCOA updates, and more frequent updates of felon and death records.  She noted the impact will be cost savings and more integrity in the voter rolls. 

While Mesa County’s transition to the new system is anticipated to relatively seamless, this will mean changes for many Colorado counties.

“Elections administrators in Colorado are accustomed to swift implementations with limited resources in every cycle. I think communication to voters will be key and our partnerships with the Secretary of State’s office and other local entities and commitment to voters will be very important, as always,” said Pam Anderson, clerk and Recorder for Jefferson County. Anderson is also the current present of the CCCA.

Anderson said clerks will also rely on the parties, campaigns and interest groups to communicate accurate and timely information with reliable sources.

“But when you dive into the nuts and bolts of the implementation for administrators it is really a lot of what we already do,” Anderson said. “The CCCA has been aggressively working with our members on communicating changes and working together so that we can share resources and knowledge and avoid ‘re-inventing the wheel’ in each jurisdiction.”

Not only will administrators face some changes, but so will voters. The new law will be a big change and the legislation actually addressed that by including public hearings in each county for polling center locations and the CCCA is working on an aggressive communications plan that will be accessible statewide including website, social media, civics outreach, parties and close relationships with the media.

“In Colorado, we have had many electronic access points for voters (online registration and ballot tracking) for years and this gives us a leg up,” explained Anderson.

Reiner noted that there would also need to be some process changes at the local level, but like Anderson she’s optimistic that the changes will be implemented well before the system is put to the test.

“I expect there to be some confusion between special district or municipal law with our new statutes until alignment and clean-up can be accomplished in the next legislative session,” Reiner said. “There are a few rough edges in the statutes, but overall no issues are anticipated as far as voter access and conduct of the election.”

While the CCCA and many clerk and recorders supported the legislation, not all did. El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams was not supportive for a variety of reasons including concerns about voter fraud, eliminating a voter’s choice and wasted tax dollars.

“Our office has estimated that HB 1303 will cost the taxpayers of El Paso County dearly.  El Paso County runs on a pretty lean budget.  Our tax burden is significantly lower than other large counties, and that is reflected in the Clerk and Recorder’s Election Budget,” said Ryan Parsell, public information officer for the clerk and recorder’s office.

The clerk and recorder’s office estimates that implementing HB1303 will increase the 2014 election budget by at least $695,000.

“In El Paso County, that’s money that has to come from roads, bridges, Sheriff protection, child abuse investigations, or parks.  This office is not comfortable with having to pay more for a service we have been providing –without issues— to the citizens of El Paso County,” Parsell said.

While El Paso County anticipates a negative impact on its budget from the new law, Anderson said the fiscal impacts on other counties will vary. In Jefferson County the new law will actually help the county save some critical funds.

The county was set to replace its aging voting system and had budgeted $4 million for that replacement. According to Anderson, HB13-1303 reduces that cost to an estimated $2 million.

“There is no funding from the federal or state level, so our county really needed this flexibility and it is one of a few main reasons why Jeffco (including Commissioners from both parties) supported the legislation,” Anderson said.

Recall election speeds up implementation
While most elections officials in Colorado will not have to implement all of these changes until 2014, some counties, including El Paso, are on the clock now to get the new changes implemented for impending recall elections.

“I have no doubt that our expert elections staff will be as ready as possible by the time the Senate District 11 Recall Election takes place,” Parsell said. “However… [n]o amount of preparation will help us catch fraud easier with a flawed same-day voter registration law.  No amount of preparation will keep SCORE running when it hasn’t been updated as promised by the proponents of this law.”

Just this week, the El Paso County commission gave Williams broad authority to seek whatever legal action is necessary to “…protect the rights of citizens of El Paso County with regards to the recall election.”