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Changing the way we vote



If city leaders have their way, convicted felons will still not be allowed to represent the people of Colorado Springs. But if you didn't get caught, you will still be able to run and, if elected, proudly keep an office at City Hall.

The city's charter has prohibited convicted felons from holding public office for years. However, the city of Colorado Springs is considering several changes in the way candidates qualify and run for public office as soon as next April -- including reaffirming the convicted felon clause.

Last week, City Clerk Kathryn Young unveiled a trio of possibilities for next year's city election, when the city is expected to ask for a tax hike for specially designated improvement projects. In addition, the City Council's four district seats are up for grabs.

Young is pushing for a mail ballot election. The clerk said the city would save almost $30,000 if Colorado Springs conducts the City Council election through the mail next year.

With 245,456 registered voters currently living in Colorado Springs, the $330,000 estimated cost for the election represents a little more than a dollar a voter.

The city could also opt to conduct the election the old-fashioned way, at polling places and via absentee ballots.

Young noted that in cities where mail elections are conducted, the response has been phenomenal. Fort Collins, she said, had a 75 percent voter turnout when they switched to mail elections several years ago. By contrast, Colorado Springs averaged a 20 percent turnout in its 1999 precinct election.

Have we forgotten?

However, Councilman Jim Null said that while voter participation may increase, so may the possibility of voter fraud, abuse of the system and uninformed voters weighing in on a city election they know nothing about.

"We're talking like we've forgotten we did this once before," Null noted. Three years ago, the city tried a mail ballot election, and tax protester Douglas Bruce showed up at City Hall with fistfuls of discarded ballots that he said he found in garbage cans.

While debating the issue last week, City Council members also raised the possibility of making other changes to the city election process, including the possibility of making it more difficult to run for City Council, a part-time job that pays $6,250 a year.

Councilman Richard Skorman suggested that the city consider increasing the number of petition signatures that are required before a candidate can be allowed onto the ballot for City Council races.

Currently, candidates are required to collect 100 signatures from registered voters. Skorman, however, suggested that the number be raised to 200 or 500 to discourage people who aren't really serious.

Free food

In last year's election, nine candidates ran for four open seats, including the spot that elevated Skorman, a downtown businessman, into public office. One of those candidates, Skorman said, seemed to be more interested in getting free dinners on the campaign trail than in debating the issues.

"The entertainment value makes it difficult for us serious candidates," Skorman said. "If we raise the bar a little bit, we'd have candidates who are viable and credible."

Skorman's proposal was rejected by Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, as well as Councilmen Jim Null and Ted Eastburn, who argued against making it more difficult for ordinary citizens to run for public office. Null cautioned against potentially discriminating against those who aren't independently wealthy or are endorsed by deep-pocket special interest groups.

"Each of us has a definition of what's credible," Null said. "The more difficult it is to get on the ballot, the more difficult it is for the common person to be able to run."

Null, Eastburn and Skorman all received endorsements and campaign cash from realtors and the powerful Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association in their 1999 Council bids, as did Makepeace in her 1999 mayoral re-election effort.

However, Eastburn noted that many of those candidates who did not receive the official nod from the establishment crowd received thousands of votes last year.

The City Council will resume its discussion over election requirements during its Nov. 28 meeting.

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