Branscomb: SB17-138 blocks citizen rights to witness and verify election steps
Author: Harvie Branscomb - February 27, 2017 - Updated: February 25, 2017
Ten years ago when Coloradans voted in their precincts, many of us fed anonymous ballots into scanners and personally watched 90 percent of our election process. Results were posted by citizen judges on precinct doors, then summed and reported by county clerks. This process was simple, straightforward, run by citizens and, most importantly, witnessed and verified by citizens.
Fast forward to our much ballyhooed “Colorado modernization.” Ballots are mailed to addresses in the online state registration database, returned mostly using convenient but unstaffed drop boxes and then subjected to complex signature “verification” protocols. Some would-be voters whose signatures mismatch are sent a letter asking for confirmation that they cast the ballot. Ballots are processed by clerks or clerks’ staff and county-paid election judges, many of whom are also regular county staff. All these election officials share a desire to demonstrate that the election is unblemished, fair and accurate. None of them are motivated to report errors or “discrepancies.” Embarrassing incidents are rarely reported to the public.
Discrepancies that need correction do occur: voters voting in two counties, voters asking for the correct ballot and not receiving one, statewide failure of the voter registration database, a county tabulation system grinding to a halt — all happened in 2016. How do I know? I am an experienced election watcher — 30 counties in 2016.
Citizens like me learn election details but only through critical and longstanding watcher rights “to witness and verify every step in the conduct of the election” and “to assist in the correction of discrepancies.” Unfortunately, the secretary of state has written a bill carried by Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, and Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, that redefines “conduct,” seriously narrowing those rights to circumstances where only ordinary things happen. Senate Bill 17-138 also seeks to slow down the certification of last-minute watchers and prescribe to whom watchers may report.
Despite the bill’s provisions, it is the out-of-the-ordinary event that most needs watching — for example, everything that follows a surprise narrow margin on election night. This bill would effectively give officials a way to hide any but the most basic election steps by not involving election judges and therefore excluding watchers. Under SB17-138, officials may eject citizens like me who are duly appointed by candidates, political parties and ballot issue committees. Legislators — soon-to-be candidates again — may be denied information when election officials exclude appointed partisan watchers from error-prone election steps. An example is the design and printing of ballots where expensive mistakes have been made.
Those election officials who are elected are themselves privileged with full access to all election information. They don’t need watchers to defend their candidacies and are happy to see watchers hobbled.
If capping watcher rights makes you uncomfortable, and if you are a legislator, then please vote against SB17-138. Existing watcher law is ancient, adequate and causes no problems. If you must update statute, please just make it easier to be a watcher.