For Denverite Rob Wellington, 25, a change to the election system is long overdue. Wellington’s only bothered to vote in person once and it was not the best experience. He was 18 and thought he could just duck out of school for an hour or so to get it done. Instead he ended up standing in what seemed like an endless line. When he finally got to the front, Wellington made a tragic discovery.
"I forgot the booklet with the different pros and cons of the different candidates," Wellington said recently, "so then I had to go out and the booklet again and stand in the line again. It was not the glamorous voting experience I was looking for."
Wellington’s voted by mail ever since. Now the rest of Colorado is joining him, whether they want to or not. Starting this year, every registered voter in the state gets a mail ballot for every election. It's just one of many changes included in an omnibus election bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year.
Another big change with this law: all counties have had to give up precinct polling places and instead start county-wide “vote centers," one stop shops for election needs, from registration to ballot dropoff.
"The new law added some consistency, not just election to election, but from county to county," says Denver's Director of Elections Amber McReynolds. McReynolds office was instrumental in helping craft the bill.
Critics of the new law fear it opens the door to election fraud. They warn that unscrupulous partisans could collect and submit all the ballots in apartment building mailrooms, or that someone could mail in their ballot and then claim it was lost and vote again at a center.
But McReynolds defends the counties' security precations. Election judges check the signature on each ballot against other handwriting examples, to make sure it was filled out by the person it was sent to. And she says if someone did try to vote both by mail and in person, the system would spot the second ballot and void it.
This kind of instant check is possible because of Colorado’s statewide voter database, called SCORE. Computers in every vote center will be linked to it. McReynolds is excited about that access. The man in charge of running the database, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, is not.
Gessler, who fought the new law vigorously while it was being debated at the Capitol, says it asks things of SCORE that the program was never designed for, like real time access from hundreds of vote centers, and processing new voter registrations through election day.
Gessler says his staff has worked out temporary fixes to get through this election, when turnout is expected to be light. But he's warns things could get ugly next year when there will be a lot of high profile state and Congressional races on the ballot and the database will have to handle a lot more traffic. He points to the high-profile troubles with the federal health insurance exchange database as an example of what happens when too much is asked of a government computer program
"This stuff is hard work. We have to handle millions of transactions within a very, very short compressed time frame and we have to do it flawlessly in order to make this election work," Gessler says.
The Secretary of State's office is seeking money from the legislature to upgrade the SCORE database for next year. The new election law has financial implications for counties, too, some good, some bad. Denver officials estimate they would have saved around $30,000 last year if the law had been in place. That's because having the voter database in every vote center will reduce the number of people casting provisional ballots, which cost more to process. But in some more rural areas where few people used to vote by mail, this switch comes with new expenses.
"With the programming and the printing and the postage, I think it’s going to be a substantial [cost] increase," says Lake County clerk Patty Berger. She's warned her county commissioners she may have to ask for extra money if this election exceeds her budget.
In addition to the cost, this change also comes with some confusion; Berger says she's been hearing from a lot of residents surprised to find a ballot in their mailbox.
"They didn’t ask for one and it’s like, I know, we mailed them to everybody this time," she says. "It’s like, ‘I didn’t want a ballot like this.’ Well, I’m sorry but you get a ballot like this."
Berger says her voters complain they’ll miss running into their neighbors at the polls. Jenny Anderson of Berthoud feels the same way.
"You just see people you only see at the ballot place or at if you’re lucky in the grocery store or something like that. So you visit," says Anderson. And she complains the change takes the social aspect out of voting, leaving it as just a civic responsibility. But it's still one she takes seriously; Anderson's ballot is already heading back to the elections office. Just this time it's in the mail.
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