There's an agitated vibe at the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's election department Tuesday morning.
Though election day's only three weeks away and mail-in voting has started, residents waiting in line worry about missing and mistake-bearing paperwork.
Mary O'Donnell waits clutching two mail-in ballots. One is her own, but she wants a replacement after she mistakenly printed her name on the return envelope instead of signing. The other ballot is her roommate's, which arrived despite a data-entry error that shipped it with the wrong ZIP code.
After she learns her roommate will have to deal with her own ballot, she obtains new materials for herself.
But where her first envelope had codes and numbers next to her name and address, the new one has "DEM" printed conspicuously.
O'Donnell says she decided to vote with a mail-in ballot because of doubts about touch-screen voting machines and scanners used on election day, and mistrust for an election official charged with programming them. Now, her Democratic Party affiliation is marked prominently on the envelope in which she's required to submit her completed ballot visible to postal workers and anyone else who'd handle it.
"I'm getting afraid my vote won't count," O'Donnell says.
Others are coming to share similar fears as questions build about errors, misinformation and appearances of partisanship coming out of County Clerk Bob Balink's office.
Sue Nemanich requested a mail-in ballot in August. When it arrived in early October, her last name was spelled with an extra "a" at the end. Bob Nemanich, Sue's husband and an active local Democrat, started making calls to figure out what to do. He says he received repeated assurances she would have no problem casting the ballot with the misspelling until Liz Olson, the county election manager, told him the ballot was "spoiled," and that a new one would be sent.
The new ballot arrived with "DEM" showing through the envelope. Nemanich says his initial fears about contradictory and misleading information were gradually overtaken by amazement.
"Anybody who sees this can see this is a Democratic Party ballot," he says. "It invites easy manipulation."
Pat Waak, the Colorado Democratic Party Chair, says Tuesday afternoon she's "very troubled" by reports she'd heard from El Paso and Weld counties of mail-in ballots with party affiliation on address labels.
"It concerns me that it might lead to selecting out certain ballots," Waak says.
Later in the afternoon, Balink and Olson explain that a voter's party affiliation only shows up on replacement mail-in ballots. The labels are generated automatically, Olson explains, by the state's voter registration database. Balink rejects the suggestion that the markings on mail-in ballots represent a "glitch."
"It's the way it was programmed," he says.
Ghost in the machine
The clerk's office is reacting to another technology problem on Tuesday. Inexplicably, the Independent and other media outlets in recent days received faxed copies of voter registration and absentee ballot request forms, complete with Social Security numbers and other private information.
The Colorado Springs Business Journal reported receiving two such forms. The Independent received one, from a government contractor working in a military support role in Afghanistan. He called in response to an e-mail.
"This is kind of weird," he says. "Now I'm wondering who all has this information."
Balink says the form went to 10 media organizations on a press release list, but offers no explanation how or why it was sent from a fax machine in his office.
"We have no clue," he says.
The machine was unplugged Tuesday as employees consulted with Qwest and county technicians to figure out what happened. Balink says only two forms went out before the problem was discovered.
Servicemembers and others living abroad have the option to submit registration forms and even to vote by e-mail or fax. The contractor in Afghanistan, a Democrat, says he e-mailed the registration and request form to Balink's office on Oct. 6. A cover letter with the fax received by the Independent suggests his forms were being sent Oct. 11 from one machine in the clerk's office to another.
'Illegal and false'
The voter registration issue that received the most widespread local attention concerns college students. Olson sent information to Colorado College last spring suggesting students were ineligible to vote in El Paso County if their parents elsewhere claimed them as dependents.
The information sparked a public outcry, and a campus rally, in September. Balink retracted the conclusion about eligibility, but continued suggesting that students faced possible negative consequences if they registered to vote here. He posted a letter from a Denver law firm, Zakhem Atherton, on the clerk's Web site and sent it to at least one CC student.
It says registering in Colorado could have "cascading effects that could affect the students and their parents financially." It concludes: "Registering out-of-state students in Colorado without fully disclosing the potential impacts of such registration borders on exploitation."
Balink's office receives legal representation from El Paso County Attorney Bill Louis, so it's unclear why Balink is receiving legal help from Zakhem Atherton, which does legal work for the Colorado Republican Party.
Attorney Ryan Call, who is on leave of absence from Zakhem Atherton, currently serves as state GOP political director and in-house legal counsel.
Waak expresses dismay about the letter, calling it "illegal and false."
"It looks like a sheer attempt to badger and intimidate students from a progressive college," she says, calling it a "huge concern" that Balink has spread discredited information from a law firm that represents the state GOP.
"I am really, really concerned," Waak says, "that he is not serving the people of El Paso County."
Checks in the mail
The identification laws for voter registration are confusing. First-time Colorado voters who mailed in their registration forms were supposed to include a copy of their Colorado driver's license, U.S. passport or another identifying document. (A full list can be found by clicking "Frequently Asked Questions" at car.elpasoco.com/election.)
If you did not enclose a copy of your ID when registering by mail, or election officials could not verify the ID information you put on your form, your mail ballot return envelope should bear a red "ID required" stamp. This means you should include a copy of your ID with your ballot in the return envelope (but outside the secrecy envelope).
Some newly registered voters who don't believe they provided ID with their registration have reported their return envelope hasn't included the "ID required" stamp. Election officials say that if they receive ballots where the stamp is missing and thus, the voters haven't included necessary ID they will contact those voters. But to be safe, it can't hurt to tuck a copy of your Colorado driver's license or other ID with your ballot in the return envelope (but, again, outside the secrecy envelope).
Did we mention it's confusing? AL