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Troubles with provisional votes set tone for clerk's office on election day

Voting troubles sent scores of people to Centennial Hall. - LAURA MONTGOMERY

At 8:45 on election night, the electoral map was already turning blue.

Though a winner in Colorado would not be announced for another 30 minutes, celebrations across the state and country foreshadowed the victory of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. Jubilant Democrats hit dance floors and uncorked champagne; bewildered Republicans were calling it an early night.

The results made for compelling TV viewing. And with a landslide in the making, American democracy avoided repeating the messy legacy of the previous two elections.

Dirt, in this case, escapes notice until you take a closer look.

Local problems

In El Paso County, the last vote was not cast until 8:45 p.m., nearly two hours after Colorado's polls closed, at Janitell Junior High School in Fountain.

Though a push to vote early or by mail kept many lines short, delays plagued much of the day at Janitell, which hosts the largest of the county's 387 precincts, including a contingent of more than 700 Democrats.

Rev. James McMearn, pastor at Fountain's New Jerusalem Baptist Church, saw clear reasons for the lines starting with what he considered too few voting booths at the busy polling place.

Another explanation has deeper roots: El Paso County's clerk and recorder's office provided early voting in Fountain in 2006, but opted not to do so this year, explaining the location had experienced low turnout despite, paradoxically, being "crowded at times."

McMearn had protested, arguing it was unreasonable for residents to vote early at the Citadel mall in Colorado Springs, as much as a half-hour drive each way. He'd offered his church for early voting, but the clerk's office declined.

He doesn't hesitate when asked if that decision made a difference, barking, "Of course it did."

Counting delays

Even votes cast long before 8:45 p.m. on election day weren't counted quickly the clerk's office was abandoned for nearly an hour after a dusty smoke detector set off an alarm around 7:30.

County election manager Liz Olson says she can't recall that ever happening on an election night, but expresses confidence the ballots and voting machines were safe while election officials huddled outside.

"They are in secured, camera-ed rooms," she says.

The false alarm set the tone for a long and grueling night in El Paso County. Though Obama was declared president-elect at 9 p.m. (he was declared Colorado's winner about 15 minutes later), no returns came from Tuesday's votes until around midnight; the final tally was not posted until nearly 4 a.m.

Reports of miscommunication and poor planning have since popped up sporadically. Some were minor: The Obama campaign sent extra pens to Hillside Community Center after learning the polling place, home to multiple precincts, had almost none to spare. Causing more concern, voters at Hillside and other large polling places were confronted with lines for different precincts, but were offered no guidance as to which line was theirs.

Edie Greene, who watched polls for the Democrats at Jefferson Elementary School, says many voters reached the front of the line only to be told their names were missing. Too often, she says, they were told to vote by provisional ballot instead of finding the correct precinct. Greene says 77 provisional ballots were cast at Jefferson, a polling place with fewer than 600 voters.

Lots of provisionals

Provisional ballots are the product of voter registration problems, and those votes are not counted unless registration details can be verified. Olson says 8,800 provisional ballots were cast on election day in El Paso County, as compared to 264,000 ballots that were counted.

That's nearly double the number of provisionals in the 2004 general election. But El Paso County was not alone in giving out thousands of provisional ballots this year; about 9,000 were cast in Denver, where 265,000 ballots were counted election night.

The final election results, including any provisional ballots that are ultimately counted, won't be released until Nov. 21, Olson says, when they're due to be certified. It's not clear which precincts had the highest numbers of provisional ballots; Olson says the practice for the last couple elections has been to keep them under wraps until the election is certified.

Asked to explain, Olson responds simply, "[The results] are just unofficial."

But it's clear the provisionals were concentrated in some areas. Jacquie Ostrom, a poll watcher at Queen Palmer Elementary, east of downtown, says she heard of some precincts where as many as 25 percent of arriving voters ultimately voted provisionally.

Ostrom, citing state law that says election judges should contact the clerk's office to double-check when registration information is in question, fought to keep provisionals to a minimum. Working with the election judges, she contacted the clerk's office to address registration issues for dozens of residents.

As a result, she says, five were allowed to vote by regular ballots. Many more were sent to the clerk's office at Centennial Hall, where they were able to either vote by mail ballot or to clear up problems.

Others did not have the same success. In El Paso County alone, says Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, thousands of voter registrations were blocked because of missed check-marks and other technicalities.

"I still think," Flanagan says, "our states and counties can do better."

lane@csindy.com

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