If Colorado's vote becomes contested in a presidential race similar to 2000, the state could touch off a national firestorm of controversy similar to the dispute in Florida.
"When there's a close race, there will be a spotlight on how the election is conducted," said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. that began tracking America's elections after the 2000 fiasco.
That spotlight has burned brightly on Colorado for months, and Seligson ranks the Centennial State high in potential for post-election trauma. Both the Democrat and Republican parties are amassing "armies" and "SWAT teams" of volunteer lawyers to monitor polling places to ensure voters are not disenfranchised. With soaring voter rolls (more than 3 million registered voters in Colorado this year, at least 180,000 more than the 2000 election) and tight presidential and senate races, county clerks may struggle to ensure a fair vote.
The earliest sign of potential problems arose this August at the primary election, when Colorado, for the first time, required identification from all voters. The state allows voters who fail to show ID to vote on a provisional ballot, basically a backup ballot that is counted 12 days after the election. But if a voter shows up to vote in the wrong precinct, only a vote for president will count.
In September, the watchdog group Colorado Common Cause filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Donetta Davidson to overturn the identification requirement, saying it discourages voting among students and poor people less likely to possess required identification. The lawsuit also sought to strike down a rule that prohibited people who request absentee ballots from voting at a polling place.
This month, District Judge Morris Hoffman upheld the identification requirement, but lifted the ban on absentee voters voting at polling places. But by the time Judge Hoffman issued this decision, confusion and controversy had already gripped the upcoming election. Newspaper accounts reported that temporary voter-registration drive workers, paid by the number of voters registered, had submitted faulty or forged registrations and registered some voters multiple times.
Secretary of State Davidson announced that more than 6,000 paroled felons who were ineligible to vote were somehow allowed on the rolls --potentially confusing felons on probation who have served their time and can indeed vote in Colorado.
Adding to the chaos, absentee voters overseas and in Denver learned that their ballots had been delayed by legal wrangling over whether to put Reform Party candidate Ralph Nader on the ballot (he's on).
In response to this confusion, Davidson surprised county clerks across the state by announcing that people who show up to vote but aren't on the official rolls will be able to vote by provisional ballot if they swear that they had registered to vote. It may be impossible, however, to determine whether these voters are telling the truth about their registration.
In this accountability vacuum, non-partisan groups have stepped up efforts to combat disenfranchisement. Fairvotecolorado.org plans to distribute tip-sheets to voters, deploy election monitors and provide a toll free hotline (888/839-4301) for voters who experience problems on Election Day.
"We think there'll probably be a lot of ID problems," said Mark Eddy, a spokesman for the group "and confusion over who should get a provisional ballot." The group will promptly alert officials on election day if a pattern of difficulties arises.
But the problem most likely to spark a national drama in Colorado, says electionline.org's Seligson, would be the passage of Amendment 36 to the state's constitution. The amendment would divide Colorado's nine electoral votes proportionally between Bush and Kerry. In a tight election, this could spark bitter and protracted legal wrangling, Seligson says. "If [Amendment 36] was in place four years ago," he said, "it wouldn't have mattered who won Florida."
A recent Denver Post poll showed declining support for Amendment 36, with only 35 percent of persons polled decidedly for the measure.
But Seligson, who rates Colorado as an eight out of 10 on a scale of potential election problems, said Amendment 36 is looming large over the entire nation. "If polls were suggesting Amendment 36 was going to pass," he said, "I'd give Colorado an 11."
-- Dan Wilcock
People who see signs of voting or counting machine malfunction or irregularities on Election Day can call Coloradoans for Voting Integrity, a non-partisan group dedicated to ensuring that voting and vote counting machines are working correctly. The hotline is toll free, 866/383-7913 (303/205-7919 in Denver).