Tracking Voters in Real Time in Colorado

The state’s “electronic pollbook” makes the precinct system obsolete.

Voters cast their ballot at the Westside Community Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. 
AP2012
Scott Bland
Feb. 24, 2014, midnight

Hop­ing to make vot­ing ac­cess­ible without open­ing the door to fraud, Col­or­ado is turn­ing to tech­no­logy.

In 2013, the state Le­gis­lature cre­ated Col­or­ado’s own “elec­tron­ic poll­book,” a new real-time voter-track­ing sys­tem that al­lows the state to com­bine an all-mail elec­tion with tra­di­tion­al in-per­son vot­ing, max­im­iz­ing the op­por­tun­it­ies for res­id­ents to cast bal­lots.

Col­or­ado already had a ro­bust vote-by-mail sys­tem — about three-quar­ters of the state’s voters mailed their bal­lots in 2012 — but now, every re­gistered voter in the state, in­clud­ing pre­vi­ously “in­act­ive” voters, will re­ceive a mail bal­lot in up­com­ing elec­tions. Yet un­like in Wash­ing­ton state or Ore­gon, which run all-mail elec­tions, Col­oradans can still vote in per­son if they choose.

In­stead of be­ing tethered to a loc­al pre­cinct, voters can cast bal­lots or re­turn their mail bal­lots at any “vot­ing cen­ter” in their county, where poll work­ers can check them in us­ing the real-time con­nec­tion in the new e-poll­book to en­sure they haven’t already voted us­ing a mail bal­lot. The pro­cess is spread over a couple of weeks of early vot­ing and Elec­tion Day it­self to re­duce crowding and wait times at polling places.

Col­or­ado’s new law also con­tains more pro­voc­at­ive ele­ments, in­clud­ing al­low­ing Elec­tion Day voter re­gis­tra­tion, which led to party-line votes in the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Le­gis­lature. But sup­port­ers say the e-poll­book mit­ig­ates se­cur­ity con­cerns typ­ic­ally as­so­ci­ated with same-day re­gis­tra­tion.

“We’ve nev­er had [same-day re­gis­tra­tion] in Col­or­ado, and that frightened the clerks who’d have to deal with it be­cause we knew our pre­cinct-based sys­tem couldn’t make sure a voter hadn’t voted some­place else,” says Don­etta Dav­id­son, a former Re­pub­lic­an sec­ret­ary of state who is now the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Col­or­ado County Clerks As­so­ci­ation.

Put­ting real-time voter info at the ad­min­is­trat­ors’ fin­ger­tips al­layed those fears and al­lowed them to aban­don the pre­cinct sys­tem. At the voter cen­ters, “we can look them up live,” Dav­id­son said, wheth­er to can­cel an un­used mail bal­lot and is­sue an in-per­son one or to find out if someone had voted in an­oth­er county already.

“I don’t know of any oth­er state do­ing this,” Dav­id­son said. “And a lot are really in­ter­ested in what we’re do­ing.”

Not every­one in Col­or­ado is as com­pli­ment­ary of the state’s ef­forts, es­pe­cially cur­rent Sec­ret­ary of State Scott Gessler, the Re­pub­lic­an in charge of ad­min­is­ter­ing Col­or­ado’s elec­tions. He says that al­though the e-poll­book has “po­ten­tial,” he hasn’t got­ten the money to im­ple­ment it prop­erly to handle the huge us­age spikes dur­ing elec­tions.

Mostly, Gessler con­tends that the new law was un­ne­ces­sary and, es­pe­cially on res­id­ency re­quire­ments, in­tro­duced se­cur­ity holes in­to an elec­tion sys­tem that was work­ing fine. “When it comes to vote fraud and se­cur­ity, the elec­tron­ic poll­book works great to stop people vot­ing twice us­ing same name,” Gessler said. “But it doesn’t stop someone from vot­ing in a ‘dis­trict of con­veni­ence’ or vot­ing twice un­der two names.”

“What was the burn­ing prob­lem that Col­or­ado had? If you look at our voter turnout in 2012, un­der my pur­view, we were one of very few states that saw an in­crease” while oth­ers dropped off com­pared with 2008, Gessler con­tin­ued. “So what’s the mo­tiv­a­tion for these massive re­writes of Col­or­ado elec­tion laws with no sup­port from the oth­er side?”

The new law got its first real tri­al run at the end of 2013, when Col­oradans held loc­al elec­tions and voted on statewide bal­lot meas­ures. Turnout rose con­sid­er­ably since the last com­par­able elec­tion in 2011, al­though grow­ing voter rolls and in­tens­ity over is­sues like frack­ing and taxes could have more to do with that than the new elec­tion pro­ced­ures. Dav­id­son said the clerks thought vot­ing went well.

Col­or­ado already per­formed near the top — though not in first place — in the Pew Char­it­able Trusts’ Elec­tion Per­form­ance In­dex, which meas­ured a broad range of data on elec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2008 and 2010. Data com­ing in over the next few years will help de­term­ine how much Col­or­ado’s tech­nic­al in­nov­a­tions will af­fect both par­ti­cip­a­tion and se­cur­ity in the state.

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