20 November 2007

Denver Election Worries

After hearing the latest news on how preparations for Denver's elections are going from the city's newly hired director of elections, I can't help but to be a little worried.

* Of the sixteen staff positions in the office, seven are vacant. It remains unclear if election judges will have to now be hired through the civil service authority.

* Denver plans to convert its voter registration data to a state database on December 10, 2007.

This is right in the midst of a very complicated dance involved in drawing up lists of voters for the 2008 party caucuses where Coloradoans will have a say in Presidential nominations. The cut off for being registered to vote and declaration a party affiliation is December 5, 2007. The cut off for confirming precinct assignments is January 5, 2008. The caucuses are February 5, 2008. A disaster, which seems almost automatic when there is any major computer system change, but wreck havoc on the caucus process by depriving political parties of accurate voter lists.

This was supposed to have been completed by the state two years ago. It is hard to imagine a worse time to try to catch up. If the transition were made on February 6, 2008 instead of December 10, 2007, the risks associated with problems would be immensely lower and far less pressured.

* There are no electronic voting machines certified by the Colorado Secretary of State. Certifications were due in July and are currently targeted for mid-December.

* We don't know what format the November 2008 elections will be conducted in right now. The current recommendation is for about 170 multiple precinct sites using paper ballots that will be counted at a central location.

This means that the guidance of historical precinct locations will be gone, and the flexibility of being able to vote anywhere with vote centers will be gone.

* Many election judges have been alienated after the 2007 election, where election judges simply walked out at 8:30 p.m. on election night. In part this was because these committed volunteers basically weren't even allowed any meaningful breaks and required to work overlength shifts. Massive recruitment of new election judges may now be necessary, and no firm plans are place to accomplish this task. The average age of an election judge in the United States is 72 years old.

* The elections division has all but conceded that election results will come very, very slowly in November 2008. The elections division lacks the capabilities to process 120,000 ballots of many pages each in a timely fashion. More planned space will help, but can't speed the counting of paper ballots that much, as only a certain number of pages of ballots can be fed through the counting machines each hour.

* The relatively simple 2007 election has a 5% voter marking error rate, but the November 2008 ballot will be more complex.

Paper ballots while they have their good points, make it far easier to overvote or undervote. A great deal of voter training will be necessary to make a return to paper ballots work.

* It isn't clear that there are plans in place to significantly improve the situation on a process/systems basis.

For example, lots of the time is spent in the vote counting process unfolding a ballot folded in five places, but it seems that there was no walk through of the process that would have allowed the division to reduce this barrier in advance by using a larger envelope.

Similarly, while the elections division has blamed the city's information technology department for a computer crash on election night, and as did the elections commission before the transition to an elected clerk and recorder, it isn't obvious that a solution is underway.

Some of this is constrained by state laws that micro-manage the elections process. But some is not.

* The vendor that provides the city's voter registration software, Sequoia is discontinuing support for the software at the end of this year, although it appears that it may be pursuaded to continue a bit longer.

* The city still doesn't have a precinct locator at its website, despite an anticipated all time high rush to attend precinct caucuses and despite a tenatively planned return to a precinct based voting location system.

* There was no representative from the Democratic Party of Denver, per se, on the committee charged with chosing a format for the 2008 election established by the newly elected clerk and recorder, despite the fact that it is the dominant political party in the City and County of Denver, and has a multiple legally defined formal roles in the process.

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