By Gayle S. Putrich | Colorado Watchdog
DENVER— Colorado could go either way Tuesday, and with a tight race comes national attention and, as a consequence, national scrutiny.
The relationship between state elections officials and Secretary of State Scott Gessler has been tumultuous from the start, including lawsuits, investigations, recall threats, accusations of incompetence from both sides and even Gessler’s removal of one county clerk.
Not to worry, Gessler’s office and elections officials say.
“Right now we are fully focused on Nov. 6. We’re just holding our breath and trying to get through it,” said Gilbert Ortiz, Pueblo County Clerk and president of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “We’re optimistic that it’s smooth sailing through Tuesday. But I think we’re prepared for whatever might happen.”
Ortiz has faced Gessler in court. In fall 2011, during a special, all-mail balloted election, Ortiz and Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson decided to send ballots to “inactive voters” — people who did not vote in the most recent election or update their registration — in their respective counties. The move came despite Gessler’s interpretation of Colorado state law and his effort to crack down on voter fraud. A District Court judge ruled the ballots could be sent, and six more county clerks opted to send ballots to inactive voters.
Ortiz is also president of the CCCA, a bipartisan organization of county clerks that penned an Oct. 8 letter citing Gessler for errors, oversights and a lack of cooperation and communication that potentially “introduces unnecessary risk and undue burdens to the vote counting process and voter confusion” in “an important election year.”
In an apparent effort to project a semblance of unity and order ahead of Tuesday’s election, Ortiz and other clerks now call the scathing four-page letter “water under the bridge.”
“The issues we were addressing were specific at the time … . And we are beyond a lot of that now,” Oray County Clerk and Recorder Michelle Nauer said of the CCCA letter. “Right now we’re just 64 county clerks just concentrating on getting the votes counted. Most of those are moot points at this point.”
Johnson, the Denver County clerk Gessler took to court last fall, downplayed the letter, saying the state is “adequately prepared” for Tuesday.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t privy to the information that was in that letter,” Johnson said, noting she first heard of the letter in the news. “The issues in that letter are of concern, however … we worked through them.”
Denver, the largest county in Colorado, has “a really good working relationship with the state,” Johnson said.
The letter was signed by Donetta Davidson, executive director of the CCCA and former Colorado Secretary of State. Davidson says the letter, while calling out Gessler on specific incidents, was primarily meant as a plea for the secretary of state to work more closely with the clerks on new procedures and the best times to implement them — and to wait before trying anything else new for the 2012 election.
“Really what we were saying is, ‘We want to work closely with you and testing new software, new innovative things, we’re excited about them, too, but it’s obviously not the right time,” she said. “Any state would tell you that changing procedures right before the election is not the best plan.”
When it comes to picking the right time to change election procedures, Davidson is something of an expert. She has served as a clerk in two different Colorado counties, then as secretary of state from 1999 to 2005, overseeing two presidential election cycle, before being appointed by then-President George W. Bush to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
“The letter was more big picture than just this election,” she says. “(Gessler) may run again. He’ll be there at least two more years and he could be there six years. We just really want to work closer, and its doesn’t matter who the secretary is, (the clerks) just want to have a good partnership with the state.”
Gessler’s office, too, is brushing off the CCCA’s criticism, just a few days out from the first presidential election he will oversee.
The CCCA sent the letter to draw media attention “and that’s unfortunate,” says Richard Coolidge, Gessler’s spokesman. “It specifically came from the board, not everyone,” Coolidge said. “Some county clerks were surprised about some of the things in there.”
Friction between the state’s top elections official, who sets state election law, and the county clerks who actually handle voter registration and vote counting is typical, he said.
“There’s always been conflict between the secretary of state and the 64 county clerks,” Coolidge said.
Davidson discounts that idea, saying of her tenure as secretary of state: “I thought we had a pretty good relationship … I will say you don’t make every clerk happy all of the time. Obviously, the closer you work, the more of a team you have and the more they understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Amber McReynolds, elections director in Denver, also disagreed, saying a long-standing rivalry between state and county election officials in Colorado doesn’t exist. Rather, McReynolds indicates a more administration-specific conflict, including a “disconnect” between Gessler’s office and the clerks on the drafting of policy versus the practical application of it. “Sometimes we don’t understand the oversight and they don’t understand the operations,” McReynolds said.
No doubt, Colorado has had its problems.
Last-minute changes from the secretary of state’s office on provisional ballots released five days before early voting began forced the reprinting or alteration of tens of thousands of those ballots, leaving some clerks scrambling. And emergency procedures had to be updated to account for Coloradans who may be stranded on the East Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The state’s new Web-based voter registration system couldn’t collect information for 10 days in September and crashed repeatedly on the last day of voter registration.
Citizens groups in liberal Boulder County are challenging the ballots there, saying the new bar codes make their votes not-so-secret and traceable.
The Boulder County canvassing board, the group that certifies election results — now dominated by Republican and third-party American Constitution Party appointees — have been meeting without the approval or presence of County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall, and Gessler has drawn fire from the Denver Post’s editorial board for overall partisanship and from others for being a booster of True the Vote, a poll-monitoring group.
Coolidge said, “At the end of the day we’re going to work together to make sure that every voter that wants to vote has access to do that.”
And Colorado is ready for a recall, should one come, he said. Gessler’s office handled a state-wide recount in 2002, Coolidge said, and recounts are common for clerks, particularly in local races.
If the polls are to be believed, Davidson says, the vote for president in Colorado will be close, as will some of the state and local races. “We have a lot of close races by the polls, and with the redistricting and everything else, it wouldn’t’ surprise me if we have a recount,” she says. “There’s an election prayer we have, we who do this all the time, professionally… ‘We don’t care who wins, we just want there to be a wide margin between the candidates’.”
Contact Gayle Putrich at [email protected]