Dec 032007
 
Authors: Erik Myers

Many college students won’t be as blasé as older generations when they punch in their electronic votes next year. For many, it will be the first time their vote will count in a presidential election /– or so they hope.

College voters ought to keep an eye out for the approaching November date, says one local election official who oversaw problems with electronic voting machines in 2006.

Scott Doyle, Larimer County’s clerk and recorder, says he’s fed up with the lack of communication between election officials’ offices and the county regarding voting machines.

Therein lies potential for disaster, Doyle said.

Problems with communication could lead to problems at Colorado’s voting centers, which could mean a variety of problems for voters themselves: namely long lines and miscounted or lost votes.

Some college students say complications like these could spurn apathy among the already diminished college-aged voter demographic.

“I think people are kind of put off with the negative vibe,” said Brendan Durkin, president of the Young Democrats. “I think it keeps people from paying attention to the particulars, like the makeup of the ballot.”

Cutting Communication

Doyle says he is concerned about the fact that his office and the state’s election official, Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, have had nearly no communication regarding the overly long recertification process of electronic voting machines.

While Larimer County has not issued orders for new voting machines, the county currently owns 220 direct recording electronic voting machines (DREs), each one worth $3,000 — a total investment of $852,000.

Doyle and other clerks had expected to know the results of the recertification by July 1, and half a year later, they are still empty handed. The deadlines for the recertification process have undergone several changes since then.

The Secretary of State’s office has been strictly non-verbal about reasons, Doyle said.

“(The Secretary of State) has kind of broken off dialogue with the county clerks regarding equipment,” he said. “We’re completely out of the loop.”

The state says a final deadline has been set, however. Coffman is expected to announce the results of the recertification process in early-to-mid December. But the silence continues to linger.

Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Secretary of State, argues that the Secretary has no choice but to cut off county clerks from the process to protect them from future litigation.

Coolidge bases his argument in a lawsuit brought against Colorado’s secretary of state in 2006. In that case, prosecutors also targeted several Colorado clerks, singling out their involvement with the certification process.

County election departments spend thousands of taxpayer dollars when ordering DREs and voting systems. It’s a heavy investment, and is threatened when Coffman’s office begins its certification process; should a voting device fail, it will be barred from vote centers in Colorado. Voting activists argued that county clerks, faced with this threat, have the potential to influence the certification process to protect their investment through their direct involvement with, and observation of, the process. Colorado’s joint budget committee recognized this complaint as a serious concern earlier this year.

County clerks, including Doyle, say such accusations are ludicrous, and by pushing them out of the loop of communication, it becomes a serious strain to their planning approach.

Coolidge, however, says there is little to argue.

“Each of the clerks is financially invested in each of their specific voting systems,” Coolidge said. “They obviously have a stake in the outcome of the certification. Any kind of appearance of that sort could appear to be political pressure being put on a state.”

A History of Headaches

Go back to November of 2000, the year that dramatically changed the election process. In the days following Nov. 7, Election Day, the country was at a loss as to who was to lead it into the new millennium as president, hanging on the ever-increasingly narrow results of Florida.

Trouble began piling up — misplaced ballots, hanging chads and forgotten absentee ballots fed accusations of fraud and mismanagement. Policy makers and voters turned to newer technology with hope of a more accurate election.

Their hopes were given foundation in 2002 with Congress’ implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The act forced states to abandon the punch card and implement equipment that would improve registration accessibility and vote accuracy.

In the upgrade, Colorado saw the addition of the current DRE voting systems – computerized vote machines that utilized touch screen interfaces. The process of obtaining these machines and utilizing them for elections is lengthy.

County offices order DREs directly through an outside vendor. All newly ordered DREs, and those the county already owns, will be first sent to the Secretary of State’s office, where they will undergo rigorous security and reliability testing before being approved for use in the upcoming election.

In 2006, a group of concerned Colorado voters filed suit against then-Secretary of State Gigi Dennis and several clerks of major Colorado counties, including Doyle. The case was known as Conroy v. Dennis, a suit centered on the use of DREs.

At the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs pointed to a long documented history of security, accessibility and reliability problems as reason for discontinuation of DREs in the state of Colorado. Denver’s District Court agreed that the documentation of Colorado’s voting machines needed a major overhaul.

The changes would force Colorado’s four DRE vendors (Premier Election Systems, Sequoia, Election Systems and Software, and Hart Intercivic) to provide extra documentation, requiring details on the audit capacity, security requirements and physical design of their product.

The Wait Continues

As of now, county clerks still wait for their machines to be recertified, and they are unclear as to what’s taking so long.

Doyle says the lack of communication between his office and the state has never been this bad. For him, it’s not even a case of needing the machines.

“What we need to know is whether we’re going to be permitted to utilize (equipment), because that makes a lot of difference in how we go forward with planning an election.” Doyle said.

Even that kind of information is being made unavailable, Doyle added.

Doyle’s frustration is shared with other county clerk and recorders, such as Mesa County’s Janice Rich. Like Larimer, Mesa has seen tremendous growth in recent years: a population boost of over 18,000 since 2000, a 14.8 percent shift in growth compared to Colorado’s 10.5 percent average.

To compensate, a panel of citizens reviewed the county’s growth patterns, and estimated that the county would need to obtain over 100 new machines for the 2008 election. Rich said she intends to bring in the extra machines to continue serving a convenient voting process to citizens.

But weeks have passed by with no word on the status of the recertification process. Rich said telephone calls to Coffman’s office have gone unreturned, and requests for formal meetings between clerks and Coffman regarding the equipment have been repeatedly denied. This frustration, seemingly, has compounded stress.

“You would think we were in the same line of work, and it should be a partnership,” Rich said of the Secretary.

Expecting Answers

Coolidge said the Secretary’s office has been anticipating litigation the moment the results of the recertification is released to the public, and by keeping the county clerks at a distance, they can avoid being caught up in litigation. It was the Secretary’s legal counsel that advised this approach.

And this means providing county clerks with the mere details of progress; Coolidge acknowledges that the clerks have just as much information as ordinary citizens. He says this information has been provided to clerks through face-to-face meetings with representatives from the Secretary’s office.

And his office understands the clerks’ frustrations, Coolidge said.

“We want to communicate with them as much as possible, as much as we can,” he said. “This process kind of poisons the relationship with the county clerks, and is a difficult position for both sides, to almost be kind of pitted against each other.”

“Once the certification decision is rolled out, we’re going to come back together in a partnership with the clerks, and really work together to make 2008 a great election.”

It is all but certain that voting machines from all four vendors will successfully complete the recertification process, Coolidge said, but he could not estimate which vendors would actually receive recertification.

While a final deadline has been set, Doyle says he is not satisfied. He has been planning for next year without knowing any sort of detail regarding DREs, and says it has been too long of a wait.

“An election is a group effort; the secretary’s office is the state election official, and we’re the county election officials,” Doyle said. “With that relationship in place, you’d think that we’d want to be in very close communication and working together to ensure our successes.”

Assistant News Editor Erik Myers can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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