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Colorado County Clerks Oppose HB19-1278

From left to right: Lincoln County Clerk Corrine Lengel, Washington County Clerk Annie Kuntz, Prowers County Clerk Jana Coen, Yuma County Clerk Bevery Wenger, Logan County Clerk Pam Bacon and Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham

 

A record number of county clerks converged on Colorado’s state Capitol this week to voice concerns about a proposed elections bill that would, among other things, extend voting hours on Election Day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The clerks, from Crowley County on the eastern plains to Routt County in the northwest, fear the measure is an unfunded mandate that takes a one-style-fits-all approach to what is better handled on a county-by-county basis. Thirty of 64 clerks came to Denver; other clerks wrote letters to lawmakers. They are proud that Colorado’s election system is regularly held up as a model nationally.

The Centennial State in 2018 boasted the second highest voter turnout in the nation and the fourth lowest wait time to vote. They fear the proposed bill would hamper what is now efficient and sustainable. “Even if the bill was fully funded, the requirements are unachievable and create risks to the Colorado election model in advance of the 2020 presidential election,” said Pitkin County Clerk Janice Vos Caudill, president of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “It sets all of us for failure. It is not the right kind of help,” she told the House State Affairs committee Tuesday.

The committee — on a party-line vote with all Democrats voting in favor — approved House Bill 1278 sponsored by Rep. Susan Lontine of Denver, and Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder, both Democrats. Rep. Lontine told clerks she was willing to work with them to address their myriad concerns, and she offered several amendments that day to try to fix problems.

Bill supporters pointed to lines in certain counties, including Arapahoe and Denver, on Election Day. Clerks pointed out that 95 percent of Coloradans mail in their ballots or drop them off rather than vote in person. Not a single clerk — Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated — who has ever run an election before supports the measure as it was proposed. Some testified that the better way to reduce lines on Election Day would be to upgrade the Secretary of State’s online election management system. It sometimes takes as long as seven minutes to check in a voter, while other states report that procedure can be done within 90 seconds, Chaffee County Clerk Lori Mitchell and El Paso County Clerk Chuck Broerman told lawmakers.

The bill requires some counties to open additional Voter Service and Polling Centers, which is where Coloradans can vote in person, drop off already filled out ballots, register to vote and such. Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien testified she already opens additional centers when early voting begins because of how the county is laid out — it includes the communities of Vail, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum along a long stretch of Interstate 70. As it is, she said, centers report few lines on Election Day. The bill would require her to open a fifth center at the community college based on its student population, but O’Brien said the population figures in the measure are incorrect. “What I’m hoping to emphasize is there are nuances to each county, and unfunded requirements based on unclear data without reasonable flexibility create inefficiencies for counties during a time when we need to be on point,” O’Brien said.

Clerks also took issue with expanding voting hours from the traditional 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., saying they already struggle to find enough election judges. Jefferson County Clerk George Stern, who took office in January, praised the goal of trying to make elections more accessible for all eligible Colorado voters, particularly those on college campuses, and he said he remained optimistic about the changes that have been made and that they will ultimately come up with something that works for everyone. But he said even as currently amended the bill would cost Jeffco taxpayers about $500,000 the first year, which would mean cutting other services.

Asked what counties would do if the bill does not provide enough funding, Kit Carson Clerk Susan Corliss said, “Ask the commissioners very nicely?” Witnesses and lawmakers got a good laugh at that, but the financial details have yet to be hammered out.

The bill was sent to the House Appropriations Committee Colorado’s county clerks are willing to work with lawmakers in a bipartisan manner to fashion a bill that enhances, not risks, the state’s reputation as an elections leader.

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