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Voter Data Confuses Campaigners

Interim clerk says reporting needs improvement

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El Paso County's interim clerk says the county's election office needs to improve the way voter data is reported to political campaigns, after confusion arose about whether some voters might have received duplicate absentee ballots prior to Tuesday's election.

As it turns out, no one received extra ballots that they shouldn't have gotten, according to the interim clerk, Terry Sholdt.

But data reported by the clerk's office to the campaign of Tony Marino -- a Democrat who ended up losing his bid for state Senate District 11 to the Republican candidate, Ed Jones -- created confusion, Sholdt concedes. The data made it look as though dozens of voters, almost all of them Republicans, had received two ballots when in fact they had not.

"We're going to have to take a look at [the data reporting]," said Sholdt, who will soon be replaced by Robert Balink, who was elected clerk and recorder on Tuesday. "It is confusing to people."

Made her nervous

In most modern campaigns, and especially in close contests such as the Jones-Marino race, campaign staff request and closely scrutinize official records of who is registered to vote, what party they are affiliated with, and how often they've voted in the past. They also request information on who has already voted through absentee or early voting, so that they don't waste time knocking on those voters' doors or mailing them flyers.

In early October, when Marino's campaign staff asked for data on which voters had already cast their ballots, they noticed something strange: 71 names appeared twice. Of those, only one was a Democrat; the rest were Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

"That made me very nervous," said Renee Hartslief, a member of Marino's campaign staff, who analyzed the data.

The finding led to lengthy discussions with staff in the county clerk's office to try to figure out what had happened.

Initially, the clerk's office told the Marino campaign that the 71 voters were people who had, for whatever reason, requested replacement ballots after "spoiling" or misplacing their original absentee ballots.

When that happens, the original ballot is "flagged" so that the voter can't use both ballots, according to the clerk's office. Each ballot has a bar code, and when a replacement ballot is issued, the system will automatically block the original ballot's bar code -- thus making it impossible to vote twice.

"If by any chance the voter tries to mail in the first ballot that he received, our computer will reject that ballot," said Marguerite Duncan, the election manager for the clerk's office. "It will not accept it."

Delving deeper

However, when the Marino campaign urged further scrutiny of the data, the clerk's office discovered that of the 71 people listed, at least 46 had actually neither requested nor received replacement ballots. Instead, they were people who had recently switched party affiliation -- which somehow caused them to be listed twice in the records of who had voted.

Three other voters had originally requested absentee ballots but subsequently came in to vote in person as part of the early-voting process, which also caused them to be listed twice.

That left 22 people who, according to the clerk's office, had actually been issued replacement ballots.

But when the Independent analyzed the data on those voters earlier this week, another peculiar pattern emerged: Of those 22 voters, 16 all lived in one single neighborhood in Briargate, on the north side of Colorado Springs.

And when the Independent tried to contact the 22 voters, every one of them who could be reached said they had neither requested nor received a replacement ballot.

Confronted with this information on Tuesday, the clerk's office researched the voter records in question and determined that, indeed, at least 15 out of the 22 voters in question never requested nor received replacement ballots.

What had happened, according to the clerk's office, was this: When absentee ballots were originally mailed out, 15 voters in one neighborhood accidentally received ballots for the wrong precinct, because a clerk grabbed them from the wrong stack.

"It was human error," said Susan Russo, assistant election manager.

The error was discovered, however, because it resulted in a shortage of ballots for voters in the precinct where they were supposed to have been mailed in the first place. The clerk's office had to order a second set of ballots for those voters, which led to a duplicate listing in the data reported to Marino's campaign, Russo says.

Straightened out

Meanwhile, the voters who had received the incorrect ballots were allowed to use them, because the races and referendums on the two different sets of ballots turned out to be identical.

In the end, Russo says, voting went ahead without any apparent irregularities.

But the problem, according to Marino's campaign, is that there was no way for anyone on the outside to tell what was going on. The records simply listed numerous voters twice, without any explanations.

And, they note, it took numerous inquiries to get clear answers.

"We have no way of knowing," Hartslief said.

Sholdt also notes that staff in the clerk's office spent a considerable amount of time researching the matter and discussing it with campaign staff, which might have been avoided if the records were clearer in the first place.

"We need to get ourselves straightened around," Sholdt said.

-- Terje Langeland

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