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Rude awakening 

Parting gifts aside, county clerks conference ends on a low note

The rows of slot machines sit dormant this morning, but the chatter among county clerks and their top staffers filing into the Double Eagle Hotel and Casino suggests there was some activity last night. Before beginning the third and final day of their summer conference in Cripple Creek, one guy explains to a colleague how through the evening fog he spotted donkeys from the town's resident herd, but couldn't quite convince one to give him a lift.

"I want to ride a donkey," he whines with a laugh.

Yes, those clerk types can be a wacky bunch.

Past the slot machines, a registration table is piled with insulated lunch bags, free gifts courtesy of Hart Intercivic, a voting equipment company. But the main attraction today is Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher. Around 8:30, he walks to a lectern to address the crowd, which is giving off the vibe of a slumber party the morning after.

Buescher starts with a joke or two. Then he abruptly shifts course to talk about the state's finances, describing how state legislators balanced the 2009 budget largely by raiding cash funds accumulated by different departments.

That can't happen again, so cuts next year, he says, could be "really, really different."

"One thing that didn't get approached was funds [the state gives] to the counties," Buescher warns ominously. "We're going to have to be really thoughtful to make sure we have money to run our elections."

And with that, Buescher turns into the parent flipping on the bedroom lights.

'Trade association'

The Colorado County Clerks Association meets twice each year for a combination of training, networking and commiserating. In 2007, according to the most recent available tax form, the meetings cost about $76,000, paid for with registration fees from clerks and their employees — yes, those are tax dollars — and fees collected from private vendors.

Colorado election activists, irked that vendors get to attend the conferences, have fought for access, arguing the gatherings should be subject to open meeting laws. But Delta County Clerk Ann Eddins, CCCA's current president, argues the law doesn't apply because the group is not a decision-making body: "It's like a trade association or something," she explains, before musing: "I'm not really sure why they'd want to come."

The reasons aren't secret — activists think vendors who have sold electronic voting machines to Colorado's 64 clerk and recorder offices made big bucks while making the election system less open and secure.

Maybe a dozen vendors at the Cripple Creek meeting hand out free pens, water-bottle cozies and other goodies. Many collect business cards for drawings later to give out other gifts.

But the mood among vendors, particularly those selling election machines, is somber. By mid-morning on day three, Premier Election Solutions, one of four voting equipment companies with a major presence in Colorado, has packed up and left.

Craig Seibert, a sales manager with voting machine rival ES&S, stands idly with his company's latest offering, a device that lets voters use a touch screen to fill out their ballots. But, unlike touch screens now in use in Colorado, it registers those choices by filling out bubbles on a paper ballot, an effort to reassure critics who worry that elections conducted on touch screens produce unverifiable results.

"This is our go-forward product," Seibert says.

Uncertain future

Truth is, little that's election-related is going forward in Colorado right now. Even if counties had the money to buy $5,000 machines, a new state law requires all such purchases get approval from Buescher's office.

Buescher, appointed just five months ago, can't predict the way future elections will look in Colorado. Speaking in a hallway just before lunch is served, he says the state chose the "worst of all situations" to run its elections, opening the doors to four voting machine vendors instead of just one, letting counties choose whether to have voting centers or precinct elections, and making forays into early voting and mail ballots.

"We have made our elections extraordinarily expensive," he says.

The 2008 general election cost $1.3 million in El Paso County alone — nearly $5 per voter. The cost skyrocketed to $30 to $40 per voter in some of the state's smallest counties, which maintained electronic voting machines that may have only been used by six or seven people.

Eddins says many clerks fear shrinking budgets will make it hard to conduct another big election in 2010. But she insists the money to hold conferences is still well-spent.

El Paso County Clerk Bob Balink agrees, at least somewhat, writing in an e-mail that he believes the association helps give small and medium-sized counties a voice in the Legislature.

He and Liz Olson, the county election manager, show up for Wednesday's conference, but mostly stay quiet — Balink says in his e-mail that the best part about the event was the chance to talk with Buescher. He also notes that any El Paso County staffers who attended the conference day-tripped it from the Springs.

lane@csindy.com

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