More than 100 pages long, the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act had an ambitious goal: to overhaul the way Colorado holds elections.
Signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May, the law goes for its first spin during the recall elections of state Senate President John Morse and Pueblo Sen. Angela Giron. Election day is Sept. 10, but ballots could be mailed to residents of Morse's District 11 as early as Aug. 19. That means that El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams and Pueblo County Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz are busy adjusting to the new rules.
Among them: Residents can now register to vote on Election Day, instead of at least 29 days prior; a voter who moves within the state may change his address up to Election Day and vote in his new district; all registered voters, not just "active" voters, must receive a mail ballot; and assigned polling places have been eliminated in favor of voting centers and ballot drop-off locations.
Ortiz, who sided with the legislation along with the Colorado County Clerks Association, says he's ready to go. But Williams, who's not an association member, vocally opposed the law. He still has big concerns, especially about election security, says office spokesman Ryan Parsell.
"There were huge changes made," Parsell explains, "and a lot of questions that were unanswered."
Parsell says Williams' office is concerned most notably about the online voter system known as the Statewide Colorado Voter Registration and Election System (SCORE), and also fraudulent voting.
On the first issue, Parsell says he worries SCORE will be overwhelmed as it processes both votes and registrations on Election Day, saying the system wasn't designed for that. "If you're using a screwdriver as a hammer, can it withstand the strain?" he asks.
Calls to Secretary of State Scott Gessler's office were not returned, but information from other experts suggests such fear is unnecessary. Donetta Davidson, executive director of the clerks association, says problems with SCORE in the 2012 election were not related to capacity. She also notes that Gessler himself told her group that SCORE could handle the workload.
Ortiz says he has received similar assurances from Gessler's office.
The question of fraud, however, is more complicated. While rare, fraud has always existed. Some people have attempted to register more than once using fake birthdays and Social Security numbers; others have voted more than once under one registration, perhaps by sending a mail ballot, then showing up later at a polling place.
Parsell says those types of cheaters are generally caught, and their names turned over to the local district attorney for investigation. But he worries that now, there's another way to game the system: A voter may drive in from an outside district, change his address on his registration form, and vote. Later, he says, a person can change his address back and say he intended to move, but never did.
He bases his contention on language in the law: "If a person moves from one county or precinct in the state to another with the intention of making the new county or precinct a permanent residence, the person is considered to have residence in the county or precinct to which the person moved."
This scenario has gotten attention on the Internet, where it's often derogatorily referred to as "gypsy voting."
Parsell says Williams' office isn't sure what to do with these kinds of cheaters because Gessler's office has not indicated how clerks should react. "Until there's rules on it," he says, "we're going to not refer things to the district attorney unless there was a complaint filed."
It's a felony
But there are a few reasons why this may turn out better than it sounds. First, according to an email from Gessler's office to Williams' office, a person must have already moved into a district in order to vote in it.
"The 'intention' language is only relevant after the elector moved," it says.
Second, the same email confirms, clerks can and should refer any fishy behavior to the local DA's office. Ortiz, for instance, says he will track all last-minute change-of-address voters. If the address reverts in the coming months, he'll refer that voter to the DA.
Third, there are major penalties for voter fraud. According to the email from Gessler's office, "[i]t is a class 6 felony to provide false residency information." Martha Tierney, a Denver attorney involved in the drafting of the Modernized Elections Act, notes that a conviction means at least a year behind bars.
And there's yet another reason why widespread fraud seems unlikely: A last-minute address change has actually long been possible. Ortiz notes that the process was previously called "emergency voting," and it wasn't popular.
In 2012, only 16 of the 77,671 voters in Pueblo County used emergency voting. El Paso County saw 32 people out of 292,698.
Total cases of possible fraud were also low. Ortiz wouldn't specify how many cases he sent to the DA in 2012, but says no charges have been filed. El Paso County referred 341 cases to the DA — a relatively large number — but Parsell says most of those were because the signature on an envelope didn't match the name on the mail ballot. That's a problem commonly caused by a spouse signing the wrong envelope.
Ortiz notes that another common reason for "fraud" is dementia — a person may legitimately forget he's sent in a mail ballot, and attempt to vote at a polling place as well.
Of course, occasionally someone does try to cheat, but Davidson, Ortiz and even Parsell agree it's rare. Says Davidson: "Colorado [is] nationally known as having a very clean election."