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Signed, sealed, debated

Clerk sends more than 300 November ballots to DA for investigation


DA investigator Larry Martin has to mix this with many bigger duties. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • DA investigator Larry Martin has to mix this with many bigger duties.

President Barack Obama has almost finished his first hundred days in office.

In Minnesota, an extended recount is winding down, meaning the 100th U.S. senator could soon take his seat.

The November 2008 election is gently receding into the gauzy realm of history — unless you happen to be a local investigator staring at a pile of mail ballot envelopes that could point to possible — gasp! — voter fraud.

Months after Colorado's election results were finalized, voting officials from El Paso, Jefferson and other counties have turned over copies of signatures from hundreds of ballots so investigators can examine why they don't seem to match those on voter registration forms. In El Paso County, the number of questionable signatures came to 317.

"I don't have the manpower to investigate this number of reports," says Larry Martin, chief investigator for the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

In past elections, Martin says, maybe 20 or 25 mail ballots raised questions. Now, he and his staff of about 20 investigators must plow through hundreds more while also tackling investigations for homicides, burglaries and other crimes in the county.

"The problem," he says, "is you've got to verify the signature, and that is a tough thing to do."

The ballots were sent over from El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink's office a couple weeks ago. Leafing through the first 200-plus ballots, Martin — trained in handwriting analysis — found 86 signatures on the registration form and ballot envelope that seemed to match well enough. Maybe he recognized a distinctive letter or date next to their names. With any he can't match up, Martin or an investigator will track down the registered voter and ask, "Is this you?"

"Probably 95 percent or higher will say yes," Martin predicts.

All this footwork is the result of Colorado law, which requires election officials to take the first shot at comparing signatures. Those that don't seem to match are checked by two election judges from different parties.

If they agree that the signatures don't match, a letter goes to the voter; those who take creative license inscribing their names then have eight days after the election to clear things up. Ballots from those who don't respond aren't counted, and the law says they should go to the local DA for investigation.

But not every county handles that the same way. El Paso had 317 questionable ballots, and Jefferson County had 547. Denver, with more registered voters than any other county, didn't refer any signature discrepancies to its DA. Nancy Reubert, spokeswoman for Denver's clerk and recorder, says the office did send 22 cases to the DA of voters apparently trying to vote more than once. (El Paso County has 18 cases that fall into this category.)

In El Paso County, Martin says, many ballots he's received bear sloppy signatures or mistakes; sometimes family members accidentally signed the wrong envelope, invalidating the ballot but hardly constituting a crime.

[Balink declined to talk about the ballots, citing the open investigation.]

Oregon, the only state that conducts its elections entirely by mail, seems to have less trouble. Its counties refer mail ballots with unresolved signature problems to the state. Following November's election, only one was sent to the Oregon attorney general for more investigation.

Joe Richey, an open elections activist in Boulder, says one problem in Colorado is that so many county clerks handle elections differently, from training election judges to making decisions about ballots.

"There's a lot of unequal protection," Richey says.

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