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New election era dawns

Between the Lines

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County Clerk Wayne Williams, a staunch Republican, can't hide his frustration. State Rep. Pete Lee, an equally determined Democrat, can't hide his elation. Many of the state's other county clerks, who are Republicans, actually feel the same as Lee.

Everyone who cares about how Colorado's elections are run seems to have an extreme opinion about House Bill 1303, which sailed through the Colorado General Assembly in its final days and was signed into law last Friday. Mail ballots will now go out to all registered voters — in other words, there'll be no more "inactive" voters — and residents will be allowed to register and vote on election day, as in nine other states (including Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, which generally lean conservative).

We have asked how the law affects city elections, with no response yet. But though the Legislature's biggest headlines focused on gun control, civil unions, marijuana, public-school finance and immigration reform, Lee got an indication of the public's priority when he talked to a group of constituents. He outlined the most prominent bills, and when he mentioned HB 1303, Lee said, "it received the loudest applause."

The reaction, of course, depends on the audience. And nobody is growling more than Williams, who opposed the bill and loudly took issue with the Colorado County Clerks Association, which helped write it. The clerks group includes more Republicans than Democrats, and its top three leaders (from suburban Denver, Grand Junction and Durango) are all Republicans.

Williams, by the way, severed his ties with the clerks association at the end of 2012 because of policy disagreements. He dismisses the fact that plenty of Republican county clerks support the bill; most of them, he says, work in rural areas and thus appreciate the emphasis on doing elections by mail.

"They've been wanting mail ballots and they want the only voting site to be their office, which saves them money," Williams says. "Yes, a number of them are Republicans, but in many of these instances, party affiliation is a matter of convenience for them to get elected. Those clerks actually are career clerks who worked in those offices before they ran for the position.

"They've tried this before, and in 2011 their bill was defeated. But this time they traded away integrity issues, and they got what they wanted."

Williams also questions railroading the bill late in the session, saying, "There are times when it's an emergency and that's OK. This isn't one of them."

Lee takes a different view, saying the clerks association "worked on the bill for months and months, and if Wayne had still been a member, he may have had more opportunity for input. And to denigrate public employees by calling them 'lifers' is unhelpful. They worked collaboratively, conscientiously and diligently to bring our election process into the 21st century by taking advantage of modern technology."

Secure online voter registration databases, mandated by law, are meant to permit real-time updating of registration information and instant red-flagging of attempts to vote more than once. Other states have used them with success. But Williams worries about voter fraud, especially with same-day registration, "unless we somehow can get interaction with the Social Security database."

The divide shows up in another way: While rural counties will save by having fewer voting centers, Denver claims the bill will also help it save $730,000. But Williams says El Paso County already runs efficiently, and the major changes forced by this bill will actually cost him $700,000 more.

All else aside, the bill solves what we've seen as one major problem: No longer will voters be classified as "inactive" — and thus not receive a mail ballot — because they didn't vote in the last election. As long as they're registered and don't move, they'll receive mail ballots. And they can bring ballots to a voting center if they'd rather vote that way, which should help turnout.

But Williams and other Republicans won't give up. And if the GOP regains control of the Legislature, rest assured they will try to undo that, along with much of this year's major legislation.

For now, though, Colorado's election reform is a reality. And something tells me that many people eventually will appreciate it — no matter what their political affiliation.

routon@csindy.com

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