The Denver Aftermath

The Denver Post has several articles regarding the aftermath of the November election problems. First, the Post has an op-ed regarding the use of all vote-by-mail for the mayoral election next year. Two key parts of note:

The Denver Election Commission decided last week to conduct an all-mail ballot for the May 1 city elections. The commission is temporarily leaderless and short-handed and in no realistic position to organize a routine election…..As of now, the May ballot will feature a mayoral election and several City Council spots. It would be the first use of mailed ballots for a general municipal election in the city’s history. Mail balloting was approved in 1999, and Denver has used it twice for school board races in 2001 and 2003.

If there was a high-profile mayoral race on the ballot, the mail election might give us pause. But at this point, it appears Mayor John Hickenlooper will be unchallenged. None of the other ballot races have really taken shape. Every election has its problems, whether in the voting procedures or tabulation, and we don’t expect mail balloting to be flawless. (Even last month there were flaws with the absentee-ballot mailing, since the instructions mistakenly told voters to affix postage of 63 cents, not the 87 cents required by the U.S. Postal Service.) But the process has been used successfully, and the commission would be hard put to pull together another format so quickly. It will take some time and smarts to strengthen the city’s election process. The commission is being sensible to go with what’s simplest in May and what works.

Second, the City is holding a special election in January to reform elections (I know, the irony is huge here!) And the irony isn’t lost on the Denver mayor, as the Post notes:

When the Denver City Council voted to hold an election Jan. 30 to possibly revamp the Election Commission, they rejected Mayor John Hickenlooper’s plan to deal with the botched fall vote. The council voted Tuesday to hold a mail ballot, allowing voters to decide whether to retain the three-member panel or replace it with an elected clerk and recorder. The push for a change comes after computer problems resulted in some Denver voters standing in line for hours and others being disenfranchised in the November midterm elections.

Mayor John Hickenlooper supported a plan to appoint an interim clerk and recorder until May, when the issue could be voted on during the regularly scheduled municipal election. The Hickenlooper administration had suggested hiring term- limited Adams County Clerk Carol Snyder – who has successfully managed vote-center elections – until May.

“By undertaking a January special election the City exposes itself to further election execution risks and at least $700,000 in costs in exchange for four months of an elected Clerk’s time which would be spent rushing to plan the next election,” wrote the city’s head operating officer, Chris Henderson, in a Tuesday memo to the City Council.

The Post editorial page thinks the special election is a dumb idea too, as they note in an op-ed.

Brushing aside voices of caution, the Denver City Council decided to plow forward and hold a special election on Jan. 30. In the next couple of weeks, Denver’s 275,000 voters should receive in the mail a ballot question asking whether the city ought to change its charter and elect a clerk and recorder to replace the Denver Election Commission.

We surely hope the hurry-up election is not a disaster in the making, but the warning signs are there. The beleaguered Election Commission is still dissecting the multiple systemic failures that left voters standing in lines for hours in November. Key personnel have left or are suspended. And the commission also has a City Council election in May to prepare for.

“The commission is not ready,” City Council President Michael Hancock said flatly. He was on the losing end of a 6-7 council vote Tuesday night that would have pushed back the timetable to May. Council members were persuaded that it’s possible for the commission to conduct the election. Certainly, a mail ballot with one question is about as low-tech as it gets. If there are any problems with scanning the ballots, commission employees could manually count the votes.

But the push to the poll was unnecessary, risky and supplants other important tasks. We shudder to think about the damage that would be inflicted to the public trust if the commission flubs this election. And it will be costly as well, at an estimated $700,000. That’s money that could have been used to deal with the agency’s technological and software issues.

Some argue that putting the charter change question on the May ballot and electing a new clerk and recorder in November would then necessitate an equally costly runoff in December. Not necessarily. The winner could have been decided by a plurality on the November ballot.

It’s an academic argument, now that the possibility is foreclosed. We will have an election in a month, like it or not.

The city has been negotiating with Adams County Clerk and Recorder Carol Snyder to run the commission on an interim basis. Snyder, who is term-limited, has significant experience and would be an asset. However, she said Wednesday that the council’s decision made the job far less attractive. We hope the city offers the commission the technological and organizational help necessary to ensure this ill-timed vote is conducted efficiently and with integrity. Denver cannot afford to have another botched election besmirch its reputation.