09 November 2006

Fire Everyone At The Election Commission

This time around at least, Dennis Gallagher is right:

City Auditor Dennis Gallagher called for the ouster of just about everyone at the election commission and reminded reporters that in June he sent the mayor a letter warning that "a tsunami is coming and we are not prepared."

There are only 21 employees of the election commission, plus three commissioners, and their management of this year's election was so disgracefully flawed, that we could do worse than simply fire the lot of them, accept the resignation of all three election commissioners, and start over.

A majority of election commission employees told the City Council this summer that they didn't want to be a part of the City's civil service system. This means that they can be fired at will. They should be. It is hard to assign blame, but somebody in the commission, probably a lot of somebodies are responsible, and the surest way to reform this part of the city's government is to start with a clean slate. Why risk letting any part of the election commission's "corporate culture" survive?

The election disaster on Tuesday in Denver was not a surprise. Elected officials in Denver were begging Mayor Hickenlooper to make something happen long before the election. He harangued the election commission, but his phenomenal reputation for being able to make things happen, even when he doesn't have the formal authority to do so fell through this time around. Activists have been crying the alarm for many, many months. The primary election has bungled at some of the same places that were trouble points on Tuesday.

The city council seriously considered putting a measure on the ballot to scrap the election commission and replace it with the partisan elected clerk and recorder found in 62 counties in Colorado on this November's ballot. The proposal narrowly failed, but if it had been on the ballot this year, it would have passed overwhelmingly.

My daughter's elementary school class was full of election horror stories on Wednesday. Their teacher was unable to vote on her lunch break as planned, and ended up waited two hours. Another child's parents waiting in line for three hours. Yet another child's parents drove to five different vote centers until she found one with a palatable line. (Some things never change, however. In a mock Governor's election held in her class, one candidate promised her fellow students that if elected, she would provide a pony for every child.)

Denver election officials sabatogued Denver voters by sending them to Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties.

The problem was not unpredictably high voter turnout. Turnout on election day would have been relatively modest in any case because of high absentee voter and early voter turnout.

The problem was not the voting machines themselves. There were enough of them to handle the people who showed up to vote and the vote counts weren't cooked. The vast majority of these machines have been used in multiple previous elections without incident. I used one of the new machines to cast my early vote and it was in a number of ways (a verifiable paper audit trail of every vote cast and better controls against accidentially undervoting) a superior machine to the old ones, although the new machines are slower when the ballot is a long one as it was on Tuesday, are less private, and are harder for people with low vision to use.

The problem was not the vote center concept. Larimer County, the county that invented the idea, had five minute lines to vote on Tuesday.

The confusions associated with the transitition from precincts to vote centers certainly was part of the problem. High profile locations like the Washington Park Recreation Center, Denver Botanic Gardens and District 3 Police Station was favored by a disproportionate share of voters overwhelming them, while some lower profile locations were ignored until the word got out that they were uncrowded.

But, information provided by activists and newspapers over the Internet, conveyed to ordinary voters by campaign and Help America Vote volunteers who were kept in the loop via cell phone, proved a quite efficient way to divert voters showing up at overcrowded vote centers to less crowded ones.

I'm also not at all convinced that the lack of a partisan elected official as the chief election officer was the problem. I don't doubt that all three of our election commission officials had their hearts in the right place.

We cannot say that same of Gigi Dennis, our partisan elected Secretary of State who passed illegal emergency regulations designed to undermine Democratic party union support, failed to conduct the certification process for voting machines properly, and was publicly oblivious of the need to avoid appearances of bias by serving as a publicly named official for a campaign her office was in charge of regulating. Donnetta Davidson was a much better Secretary of State than Gigi Dennis, but she dismally failed in 2004 to get ballots out to servicemen in a timely fashion, depriving many of them of a vote in the Presidential election.

Tracy Baker, who replaced Donnetta Davidson as Clerk and Recorder in Arapahoe County who she was appointed as Secretrary of State after Victoria Buckley's death, was ousted a little while ago for abuse of office and sexual harassment is another example of the problem with having partisan elected officials run elections (particularly in a place where one party is dominant) -- he had to be recalled after yellow dog Republicans put him in office even after it had become clear that the job was way over his head.

Victoria Buckley, whom Donnetta Davidson was appointed to replace after Buckley's untimely death, was so dismal across the board at running the Secretary of State's office that the legislature actually stripped the Secretary of State's office of some of its responsibilities for commercial filings and computer system improvements, and gave them to an independent board instead, one she frequently didn't send anyone to meetings of, even though her office had a seat on that board.

Katherine Harris in Florida, who contributed to the fiasco that the Florida election in 2000 was, and Ken Blackwell, in Ohio, whose performance can be aptly characterized as malfeasant, can be added to the parade of horribles associated with having elections run by partisan elected officials.

I don't have high hopes for Mike Coffman, our Secretrary of State elect. He's already been found in an administrative hearing, upheld on appeal, to have violated Colorado's election laws (something that neither Democratic opponent Ken Gordon, nor third parties, brought up in the campaign), and while being a war veteran is a honorable thing in general, I still have deep concerns about the fact that he was at a base where U.S. soldiers raped a woman and murdered her and her family, and was told that something unusual had happened when he was there that day (at least according to Coffman's account to newspaper reporters) and yet he failed to inquire further. The Secretary of State's job is to actively seek out problems that are lurking unseen, not to wait until they are presented to you the way that a judge might. I'm also deeply concerned by the fact that Coffman's own filings with the Secretary of State's office in his campaign were not all in perfectly in order.

Denver's election commission's problem is nothing more, or less, than pure incompetence of the people involved. It is long standing and pervasive. Tens of thousands of misprinted ballots made their way to voters this year, and one of the races on the ballot was left off. In 2004, a failure to properly supervise the person printing the ballots resulted in absentee ballots going out late. This year, the election commission had to draft 100 city employees to be emergency election judges on election day because they grossly underestimated how many election judges would be needed. There were inadequate supplies of provisional ballots at many vote centers. The voter registration computer systems hadn't been adequately tested or thought out, resulting in massive computer failures that were the main culprint in Tuesday's bedlam.

Now that the election is over, the counting of the votes of the people whose remarkable patience won them a chance to vote on election day has been slow. About 118,000 votes have been counted so far, but there are still absentee ballots being counted. This number is low. Many prior midterm elections in prior years have seen turnout equal to 65% of active voter registrations, which would have been about 178,000 votes cast this year. Even a more modest 60% turnout by active registered voters would have produced about 164,000 votes. Even by that lower bar, 46,000 voters in Denver were discouraged and didn't vote. The number of people who actually voted on election day this year was a record low. The lowest turnout Denver has had of active registered voters from 1986 onwards in a midterm election has been 57%. This year, turn out was well under 50% of active registered voters. The fact that the Election Commission website reports that results are from only 1090 voting machines is also disturbing, because there were suppposed to be 1400 of them in use on Tuesday.

Total turnout in the 2006 by all means of voting combined, was at or near a record low this year, despite huge Democratic enthusiasm about the election, and those who did show up to vote on election day will ill treated because they were forced to wait so long. We know that, at least, 55,000 votes were case before election day. So, election day turnout including absentee votes turned in on election day, was under 63,000, a low number that shouldn't have overwhelming the system.

On election day in 1988, Denver had almost 200,000 people vote at the polls on election day. In 2004, there were about 123,000 people. In 2002, there were 89,000 people. In 2000, there were 112,000 people. In 1998, there were 124,000 people. None of those numbers include absentee ballots returned on election day. In contrast, Denver had just 63,000 votes cast on election day this year, and I know from watching operations at vote centers on Tuesday that a good share of those 63,000 votes were absentee ballots dropped off on election day. No Presidential or midterm election in the years 1986 onward in Denver has had such low turnout, even before adjusting for Denver's smaller number of registered voters back then, and a number of school board and municipal elections have had higher election day turnout. The turnout on Tuesday should not have overwhelmed the system and was not unpredictably high.

The solution to incompetence is not to change the system, although the case for an overhaul of the election commission in some form has now been made. It is to remove incompetent people from their jobs. Once that is done, there is time to think about reform.

Perhaps, we need an nonpartisan election commissioner, or even a partisan one. This election certainly hasn't made the case that the non-political business of recording deeds and issuing marriage licenses and license plates should be run directly by a partisan elected official who reports to no one.

Perhaps, we need the election division director to be appointed, perhaps with the approval of the city council, so that he or she is accountable to a high profile elected official, and can be removed when it becomes clear that he or she is screwing up.

But, the status quo is unacceptable. All three election commissioners should submit their resignations now, and all twenty-one employees of the commission should be fired when the new commissioners take office. And, this time around, we should care less about our election commissioner's motives (any direct or indirect form of political appointment isn't going to threaten voter turnout in Denver with someone who has bad motives), and more about getting a competent person to do the job.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Stephen Ludgwig, the only candidate possibly harmed by Denver's voting problems, reports that 40,000 absentee votes were uncounted at the close of business on Wednesday in Denver.

This suggests that the number of votes suppressed by the snafus on electiono day may have been considerably less (lower than an upper limit of 20,000, and perhaps considerably less than that amount.)

Anonymous said...

When you mentioned Denver's polling centers in a previous post, I was a bit jealous. I can't easily vote on a lunch break, because I have to vote near my home, not near my office. It's too bad it didn't go as smoothly as planned.

It's disheartening that there seems to be no accountability, let alone recourse, in the wake of voting irregularities. After the infamous butterfly ballot in 2000, even Buchanan was skeptical of the number of votes he received. The long waits in Ohio in 2004 were disgraceful. Now, there are suspicious undercounts in Katherine Harris's district. Is it possible that elections themselves have a greater margin of error than sampled polls?

Random idea: could a candidate take out billboards with a blown-up portion of the ballot (or screen shot, or whatever), showing his name properly marked? The other candidates names would, of course, be subtly de-emphasized with a little Photoshop magic.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Denver has a problem along those lines too. The first 20,000 absentee ballots sent out had "yes" appearing first on all but one of the ballot issues, and "no" appearing second. But, one low profile issue had the choices reversed.

Many people completed those ballots before the word went out that they were defective.