Friday, February 29, 2008

Questions re: Colorado's Paper Ballot Bill

Many questions about elections, many news reports and still not enough answers.

The Colorado Secretary of State has done what Myriah Conroy predicted in her recent testimony and has already recertified most of the voting machines in a political process which lacked transparency. The process may have avoided actually determining the accuracy of the voting systems. This looks like a very unsatisfying end to the saga of the Conroy v. Dennis law suit. It ought to be observed that the accuracy tested by Colorado certification is limited to a best case count of 10,000 ballots, when elections may process considerably more than that number on a single machine. We cannot have confidence in machine counts when the only set of tests which is intended to prove that the machines are accurate has not counted ballots on an election scale, and may not have addressed the ability of voting systems to obtain voter intent from ballots in a manner which is consistent with statute.

When and if we are ever able to determine if the tests were adequate to determine accuracy we will of course report on this. The fact that the Secretary has recertified systems will have little or no bearing on whether or not the tests prove accuracy or fail to do so. His ability to define substantial compliance has allowed him to make capricious decisions for which there is so far precious little explanation or justification. The extent to which the Secretary carried on with a non technical approach to the needs of the State regarding elections even after enduring the spotlight on this topic in the course of discussion over HB 1155 shows how little intelligence is applied in our State regulatory framework for elections. The Secretary has told members of the public that their only avenues for improvement of this situation is in the courts and in the legislature. He will then be expecting our response from both directions. The legislature will one would hope be prepared to address public interests on behalf of or in stead of the Secretary.

Senator Gordon's paper ballot bill is here, click to read bill.

The Senate State Affairs meeting on this bill is scheduled for 1:30 PM on Monday March 3rd.

The public have not been adequately served in the airing of information about elections in the Colorado press. This is primarily because the press do not provide an adequate platform for discussion and debate of issues and underlying facts. Most often important facts do not reach the form of printed word. It is the legislative process which allows for a form of debate, although it tends to be one sided and non interactive by the nature of the protocol used for these public sessions in which one side has control over the order and extent of the commentary. The public is depending, in this case almost entirely,on the legislature for the opportunity to have facts about elections aired to a full extent, even though a permanent written record is not created.

In the course of discussion of the SB 189 the following topics ought to be addressed and the underlying truths revealed. It will take time in committee to expose the answers to these questions. I sincerely hope that this time is made available:

1) Is precinct reporting needed and is it a valuable resource for public oversight and understanding of election results?

2) Can clerks perform precinct reporting and if so, just how hard is it? If not, why not? How many clerks are in this condition?

3) Do vote centers actually solve problems for elections or do they primarily introduce new and difficult problems? Why are vote centers not just combined precincts?

4) Can lines be avoided on election day without the guaranteed availability of a paper ballot?

5) How can paper ballots and paper poll books be employed to provide the best accountability and the least amount of waiting at precinct polling places? Will the existing statute and rule favor an accountable and transparent election where voters do not have to stand in line for more than a few minutes?

6) Will the widespread public exposure of a record of length of lines, machine audit logs, audit procedures and interim and final results help improve our election? Would it be better to actively collect the stories of success and failure of our elections including specific complaints or successes by clerks and by voters? And will the Secretary of State be likely to collect and publish this information under existing statute?

7) Paper ballot elections are good in part because humans can count ballots in the case an election flaw or exception is discovered. Is Colorado prepared to actually count paper ballots by hand when this becomes necessary? Do we have adequate preparations and adequate training to hand count our ballots accurately? Can the legislature assist in improving our hand count procedures? Could the clerks' negative attitude about hand counting self fulfill in the form of poor election practices and less accurate results?

8) What difference is there in the efficiency and on the other hand transparency and accountability and accuracy of election systems of the following types: an all mail ballot, an all electronic precinct election, an election with precinct counting of paper ballots and a precinct election with central counting? As far as I can tell this discussion has never taken place in Colorado.

8) Can hand counting be performed by using a bar code? Current definitions allow this. Is publication by newspaper sufficient for public oversight? Can the Department of State improve its methods of publication to make access to records more convenient? Will this take place without statutory changes?

9) Can we ever achieve a straight forward approach to elections if the legislature remains short sighted by enacting law for the current year only? What is the byproduct of limiting legislation to one year?

10) Can we expect the Secretary of State to take a non political and technically proficient approach to election quality? Will a Secretary appointed task force actually change the existing practices of the Department in addressing election process? How can the legislature serve the public in motivating beneficial change at the Secretary of State's office.

11) What is the procedural response to a narrow victory margin election under current statute and rule (less than 1/2 percent)?
Under what conditions would ballots be hand counted for voter intent in a recount? What procedure or source proves the sufficient accuracy of the machine which is used to count ballots accurately to the precision necessary to have confidence in a close margin election? Is it possible to hand count with the precision necessary to determine the outcome of a close election with confidence? Is it practical to undertake such a recount?

These are some fundamental questions for which both State Affairs committees. Legislators and the public ought to have a good understanding of the answers which would be provided not only by clerks and Department of State staff, but by members of the public who serve in the voluntary or superficially paid roles as canvass board members who do not benefit directly from a lack of exposure of election system deficiencies to the public.

I would like to see each of these questions answered in the course of the testimony on SB 189.

Harvie Branscomb
Colorado Voter Group