I wasn't born on the Fourth of July, but on a date even more significant to our American democracy.
Nov. 5, 1940 — Election Day.
On Election Days, we've voted for presidents and school board members, U.S. senators and county commissioners, scoundrels and visionaries, selfless public servants and bumbling incompetents. Free, frequent and fair elections embody the foundational principle of our democracy, and in our city, it's not hard to run them. Goons don't stand over voters as they cast their ballots, party bosses don't deliver graveyard votes, thieves don't intercept mail-in ballots at the post office.
On March 11, City Clerk Kathryn Young will mail ballots for Colorado Springs. We'll fill 'em out and mail them back, and wait for the results.
Simple enough, isn't it?
It would be, except that Young won't mail out ballots to every registered voter — only registered "active" voters. You may have voted in every election from 1960 to 2008, but if you missed 2010, you're not on her list. So if you want to get a ballot, you've got to jump through some bureaucratic hoops.
Before March 7, you can reactivate yourself at car.elpasoco.com/election, the county elections website. After March 7, you have to go to the county election department in person, get reactivated, go to the city clerk's office, display evidence of your reactivation, and get a ballot.
And if you forget, tough luck. There won't be any polling places on April 5. You may be registered, but you can't vote.
It would have cost less than $100,000 to send out ballots to the 120,000 inactives, but that's no longer possible, according to Young. "It's too late," she said, in response to a query from Vice Mayor Larry Small at Tuesday's Council meeting. The ballots have already been printed, she explained, and the wheels of bureaucracy turn too slowly to generate more.
And besides, she pointed out, "That's the way we've always done it. We get the list [of active voters] from the county, and that's who we mail to."
The coming pain may not be evenly distributed.
In Council District 3, where Lisa Czelatdko and Mike Merrifield are in a spirited race, ballots will be mailed to 33,398 "active" voters. That may sound encouraging, but how about the 29,792 "inactive" voters who won't get a ballot?
Look at the adjacent chart. By not mailing to inactives, the City Clerk has effectively removed 22,971 Democrats and unaffiliated voters from the rolls, at the cost of only 6,821 Republicans.
According to former local Democratic Party chair John Morris, there were approximately 14,600 active Dems in the district prior to the 2010 election. Turnout typically declines in off-year elections, and dispirited Dems may well have sat out last year's shellacking.
I don't believe for a minute that Young and the present members of City Council sat around a table with Republican über-schemer Dick Wadhams, and came up with this plan. They're just following precedent and, most of all, saving money. Mail to inactives city-wide? That's 120,000 more ballots, 120,000 more stamps, and God knows how many more returned ballots to process ... so why bother, if you can get away with it?
Well, because this year is different. We're choosing our first "strong mayor," and as many as seven new Council members. We're not in the nonpartisan zone of years past, but in a place so strange that Douglas Bruce and his hand-picked slate might win control of city government. This is an enormously important election, and its outcome should reflect the will of all those eligible to participate.
We all want government to run efficiently, but elections should not be viewed like other governmental functions. It's one thing to shut off streetlights — it's another to disenfranchise tens of thousands of people. The goal of government should be to increase voter participation, not diminish it.
It's not the role of City Council to run a civics contest, handing out "frequent voter" awards to good citizens, and penalizing the slackers. They can and should fix the problem. Too late?
Next month, voting will be easy and convenient for half of the electorate, and confusing and difficult for the rest. Newcomers, CC students and everyone who isn't paying attention will be shut out of the process.
That's not just regrettable — that's contemptible.
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