What does a vote cost?
Well, in El Paso County, it costs about a buck to print a ballot, and mail it to a registered voter.
According to Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, as of March 18 the county considered 60,789 voters "inactive" due to failure to vote in the previous general election of 2010.
The county's cost to send each inactive voter a ballot, then, would be roughly $60,000.
And why, Williams asks, should the county assume the expense to send ballots to people who have not taken an interest in elections? To wind up "inactive," a registered voter must have sat out the last even-numbered-year election, then failed to respond to two postcards from the county.
"At some point," Williams says, "voting becomes a responsibility."
However, if a bill making its way through the state Legislature becomes law, the responsibility will be on Williams.
Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver, SB 109 would restore all voters classified as "inactive-failed to vote" to "active" status, thus requiring the county to provide them ballots in mail-in-only elections. (It would not affect those labeled inactive due to undeliverable mail.) It would also mean that inactive voters who have opted for permanent mail ballots would have their status automatically restored.
The bill was passed 24 to 10 by the Democrat-controlled Senate, and the bipartisan support it got there bodes well for its chances in the Republican-controlled House.
Williams, a Republican, opposes the bill. In the 2009 mail-in ballot election, he says, thanks to a quirk in the law, the clerk's office was required to mail ballots to every registered voter, including those voters marked as inactive-failed to vote. For every 1,000 ballots sent to those voters in El Paso County, only one was returned.
"So it cost about a thousand dollars per voter, which is horribly inefficient," he says.
According to Alissa Vander Veen, chief deputy at the Clerk and Recorder's Office, it's an easy proposition to change your status.
In a general election, a voter with an inactive status will still appear in the poll book. On election day, the inactive voter can simply go to the polls and vote. Doing so, she says, makes them active. Or they can go to govotecolorado.com, and update their information, and again become active.
If it's an odd-year, mail-ballot-only election, they can go online and update their information until 29 days before election day. If they wait too long, and pass that deadline, they will have to go to the county clerk's office, and update their information there. And if it's a city election, they will have to then go to the city clerk, and show that they are an active voter again.
Johnston didn't respond to multiple requests for an interview, but the former chair of the county Democratic Party, John Morris, is an outspoken supporter of the bill.
Morris criticizes the hoops that inactive voters have to go through, and he also claims that the policy of removing a voter's active status disproportionately impacts Democrats — who "tend to be less consistent voters" — in this largely Republican county.
Plus, when it comes down to it, Morris says, this is a simple matter of providing the constitutionally secured right to vote.
"The idea that they would save $60,000 by disenfranchising voters is, to me, a repellent argument," he counters.
"You should not have to do extra steps. No matter how irresponsible you are, no matter how much money it saves, all voters should have equal access to the ballot."