Emily LeClair, on a day off from her work as a nurse midwife, has come to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's downtown office to cast her general election ballot. She walks in to find Monday's crowd overflowing out of a meandering maze of yellow rope into the lobby. The mood is light, with a quartet playing bluegrass tunes whenever it can secure patches of open floor.
"They look pretty young ..." LeClair says.
Then she learns there's a reason for that: Hundreds of students just marched from the Colorado College campus to kick off Colorado's two-week period of early voting. She decides she'll come back and vote another day, but smiles at the probable implications of the crowd: "I imagine it's going to bode pretty well for Barack Obama."
Most Colorado College students now vote in a single precinct that yields some unusual stats in a county known for its deep red pedigree: 824 Democrats, 79 Republicans and 900 unaffiliated voters. Though 14 of the county's 387 precincts have more voters, Colorado College's total number of Democrats outnumbers that of any other precinct by more than 100.
The numbers highlight the stakes of a debate that flared a few weeks ago, when reports surfaced that county election manager Liz Olson had previously notified Colorado College's student newspaper that out-of-state students would be ineligible to vote.
Though the information was never published, it caused an outcry and led to a retraction Sept. 23 from El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Robert Balink, a Republican elected official.
That did not end matters. Balink sought out election advice from Denver law firm Zakhem Atherton, which has close ties to the Colorado Republican Party. (The Colorado GOP's political director and in-house attorney is actually on leave from the firm.)
The firm provided a letter discouraging out-of-state students from registering to vote in Colorado if their parents claim them as dependents. Balink sent the letter to at least one CC student and had it posted on Balink's official county Web site. His office was billed $1,112.93 for Zakhem Atherton's efforts.
Speaking at a rally before Monday's march, Hal Bidlack, a Democrat running to replace Doug Lamborn as the U.S. representative for Colorado's 5th Congressional District, points out that students at the Air Force Academy, where he was a political science professor, have not been targeted with similar materials discouraging them from voting.
Organizers of Monday's march say they know some students who decided not to vote here because of information released from the clerk's office. Nevertheless, they estimate that 350 students have shown up to vote early on Monday.
Tara Davis, a CC junior, patrols the line at the clerk's office, clipboard in hand, ready to take details from any student who has problems.
Though she's heard of CC students being turned away from the polls in previous elections, no reports surface Monday. She ties that to the crowds.
"The key to this," she says, "is solidarity in numbers."
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