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Ballot bias 

Maybe you were sick. Or out of the country. Maybe your husband died. Or your dog ate your ballot.

But listen, the city doesn't want to hear your excuses. If you didn't vote in November, and you don't register or update your status by Monday, March 7, you are an "inactive voter." And you won't get a ballot mailed to you for the April city election. That's true whether or not you're a registered voter.

This is perfectly legal and common. State law says voters are considered inactive after failing to vote in a single election, and smaller elections can be done exclusively through mail ballots sent only to "active voters." Colorado Springs and El Paso County have long conducted elections this way, as have counties and municipalities across the state. Sending ballots only to active voters saves Colorado Springs tens of thousands of dollars each election cycle.

"There are two elections every four years that cannot be mail-ballot elections," El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams explains. "Those ... are the presidential and gubernatorial elections."

That said, Williams emphasizes that "everyone has the opportunity to vote." (For details, see "How to vote," below.)

Try to understand

Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Common Cause Colorado, a grassroots organization dedicated to politically empowering ordinary people, says the state's election law leads to confusion.

"Colorado's inactive law is one of the most restrictive in the country, in that we make voters inactive after failing to vote in one election," she says. "The effects are that ... people are frequently unaware of their status. And often, in a mail-ballot situation, are waiting for their mail ballot to arrive, and aren't informed that they have to take extra steps."

Actually, by law, voters are informed of their status. Here's how it works: Colorado Springs has 259,461 registered voters, 111,034 inactive. Back in January, the county mailed "confirmation cards" to 93,197 eligible inactive voters — we're still waiting for the city or county to fully explain the discrepancy in those inactive numbers — though you could be forgiven if your single, small reminder got folded in with the junk mail. Those cards stated in part: "Your voter registration is now inactive. Please complete the form below and promptly return it to our office so that we can update your voter registration record to active status."

As of Feb. 25, 16,887 of those inactive voters had updated their status; 76,310 hadn't.

Williams says that inactive voters, as a rule, don't tend to become active just because you mail them a ballot. In 2009, for instance, the county was required to mail ballots to 27,477 inactive county voters. But only 29 were filled out and returned. Granted, we're talking about people who didn't vote in a 2008 presidential election of great national interest, but still.

Williams says county ballots cost about $1 each to produce and send. (In the city this year, it's 91.5 cents.) That means every one of those 29 returned ballots from 2009 cost the county $1,000.

"At $1,000 a vote, you could go door to door with police officers and get a better result," Williams says.

He notes that many voters become inactive when they move, and between military members, college students and out-of-work job seekers, the Springs has a fairly transient population.

Not fair?

Nevertheless, if you had a legitimate reason not to vote last fall, and were planning to vote this April, the inactive law might seem punitive to you. You wouldn't be alone.

"There are certain things we shouldn't look to in order to save money," City Councilor Tom Gallagher says. "Election Day is one of them. The key to representative government is participation."

He adds, "This goes to trust in government again. If you're a registered voter, you should get a ballot ... It should be your decision whether to vote, not the government's decision."

Vice Mayor Larry Small has been equally dismayed, saying that while sending only to active voters is common, this election will decide the majority of Council and the first strong mayor, so it's important that all voices be heard. In fact, Small asked City Clerk Kathryn Young on Feb. 21 if it was possible to print enough ballots to send to all the city's registered voters.

Young's reply: "Too late."

In an internal e-mail, Young later explained, "In order to ensure ballots and envelopes are printed, shipped and mailed in time to get to the voters there is a schedule that must be adhered to. This process began in January. The ballot content was forwarded to the contract vendor on February 11 so that proofs could be generated. These proofs were verified on February 14 and the go ahead to print was given February 16."

Young printed 198,055 ballots. In the unlikely scenario that all registered voters did their civic duty by April 5, the city would be short 61,406 ballots.

stanley@csindy.com

How to vote

  • Didn't vote in November 2010? The city won't make it easy for you to participate now.

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