Election 2018News

TRAIL MIX | There’s no cure for double voting

Author: Ernest Luning - June 22, 2018 - Updated: June 28, 2018

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Unaffiliated voters in Colorado’s June 2018 primary received two ballots — one with Democratic candidates, the other with Republicans — but were only allowed to return one ballot. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

Long after the votes are counted in the June primary — advancing some candidates to the November ballot and dashing the hopes of others — there will still be plenty of questions to answer and arguments to resolve.

One of them, from the sound of things, will involve procedures adopted by the state to allow Colorado’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters to participate in the Democratic or Republican primary without having to change their registration.

(It’s worth noting that Colorado voters haven’t been evenly divided — one third Republican, one third Democrats, one third unaffiliated — for some time. Unaffiliateds account for 38 percent of voters, and they’re growing at a faster rate than either major party, which each have about 30 percent of the total, with Democrats holding a very slight edge. Minor parties make up the remainder.)

Voters passed a 2016 ballot measure, Initiative 108, to open up primaries, but the Legislature decided last year exactly how that would operate, and Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office adopted detailed rules so the state’s 64 county clerks could make it happen.

According to initial returns and reports from a handful of counties, some ballots cast by unaffiliated voters won’t be counted because the voters tried to vote in both primaries. If voters return either two marked or two unmarked ballots, the law passed last year requires election officials to reject them both. (In the exceedingly rare case when a voter returns one marked primary ballot and another that has been left blank, election officials point out, the voted ballot does count.)

That means what’s looking like several thousand unaffiliated voters will have wasted a stamp — or the time it took to take their ballot to a drop-off location — and won’t have their votes counted.

Bear in mind, that’s out of what could be about 1 million votes cast statewide by Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters in the primary. (For comparison, it’s less than the share of ballots that aren’t counted in any election in Colorado due to missing signatures, failure to include ID for first-time voters or signatures that don’t match the ones on file.)

What’s particularly irking some observers is that voters who submit two marked ballots have their votes thrown out by clerks automatically, without a chance to “cure” their ballot. It’s a different situation than voters face when they make other kinds of mistakes, such as forgetting to sign their ballot envelope, which allow for a cure within a certain number of days after the election.

To hear political insiders tell it, this is either a regrettable glitch that legislators can fix — or a looming sign of the apocalypse, threatening to destroy public faith in the very fabric of democracy.

There are also variants of “we told you so” floating around from Democrats and Republicans who say they never liked the idea of letting unaffiliated voters influence what they insist are decisions that belong to the parties and their members.

The sentiment runs strong among stalwarts in both parties. The Republicans, some will remember, considered last fall whether to cancel their primary altogether, rather than let unaffiliated voters have a say. “If you don’t wear our uniform, you shouldn’t get to play for our team,” the argument went, but the GOP’s state central committee voted the proposal down by about two-to-one.

Democrats said they considered asking party officials whether to opt out of the primary — “for about a minute,” one state official cracked — but decided to let the GOP take the heat if it turned out their rivals weren’t extending a welcome mat to a plurality of the state’s voters.

Still, when news started breaking that some unaffiliated voters’ ballots weren’t getting counted — because they couldn’t follow instructions, some critics were quick to point out! — hard-core partisans from both sides started wailing.

Across social media and in messages to Trail Mix, the sentiment sounded about like this: If they can’t even make up their mind to vote in one primary, who wants their input?

Election officials also sounded the alarm and amplified efforts to get the word out that voters were throwing away their vote if they turned in both parties’ ballots. To varying degrees, clerks around the state have been delivering that message for months, with some doing separate mailings to unaffiliated voters and others mounting targeted digital campaigns.

The Secretary of State’s office, too, has waged a multi-faceted marketing blitz that involves giant, yellow inflatable U’s, as well as wooden U’s that it’s asked celebrities to decorate. No one who runs elections wants a single vote to go uncounted, they all stress.

When the votes have been counted — and some have been tossed — and the dust has settled, election officials plan to review procedures and assess how to handle things next time around.

So far, the rate of double-voted ballots by unaffiliateds has been hovering around 3 percent, with a high of as many as 7 percent getting rejected in El Paso County and a low around 1 percent in Boulder County, according to an unscientific survey conducted about a week before ballots were due. The rate of ballot rejection appeared to be dropping as more arrived, some clerks said, suggesting that voters were getting the message.

It could be that some clerks provided clearer instructions and that others succeeded with more elaborate — and expensive — additional marketing campaigns, or it could be that external factors as yet unknown had more to do with disparities between counties. As for establishing a “cure” process for voters who try to cast more than one ballot, that’ll be up to the Legislature.

Until then, election officials, campaigns and friends are telling unaffiliated voters: only vote one ballot, and get it where it needs to go by 7 p.m. June 26. There’ll be plenty of time to argue after that.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. Since 2009, he has been the senior political reporter and occasional editor for The Colorado Statesman.