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With reformers like these ... 

Election took Bob Balink and Co. out of the spotlight, just as they like it

Using his best Bob Barker voice, El Paso County's top election official gives a pop quiz to a local college class.

"In which countries can you register to vote without providing ID documents or proof of citizenship?" he asks a group of political science students at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

"None of them?" one student tentatively answers.

"Close to all of them?" suggests another.

You can almost hear the buzzer sounding as Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink, whose February guest lecture was recorded by one of the students, hits back with his version of the truth.

"The fact is that in no country in the world can you register to vote without proper ID except the United States of America," Balink says definitively.

Moving on, he asks, "Which of the following is not a proper form of identification for voting purposes?"

The multiple-choice possibilities include various forms of photo ID and a utility bill, and Balink sounds amazed as he answers that all can be used. He tells one student that he could vote in her place after rummaging through her trash.

"That's scary," Balink says. "That's annoying."

After digressing to complain about undocumented immigrants and the burden they place on social services, Balink follows with a question about electronic voting.

"These touch-screen machines cannot be relied upon because they do not accurately tabulate votes. True or false?"

Cutting quickly to the chase, Balink declares the statement false: "The machine is never wrong if you program it like that." Post-election tests, he says, provide the final guarantee.

And with that, what passes for fact in Balink's world highlights his ideal of an election system with added barriers to voting and greater reliance on systems that require unearned trust in election officials.

The UCCS audience hears nothing about residents who last fall discovered their names had been dropped from the voting rolls; who worried whether their votes would count; or who developed trust issues with a county clerk whose fierce partisanship launched him to Minnesota as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

To make the state's election system better the next time around, a special Election Reform Commission started meeting in November. The group made recommendations to the state Legislature in early March, and lawmakers are certain to see new proposals resulting from their efforts. A few other election bills have already crossed their desks this session.

The sad truth is that the energy and fear leading up to November's election has dissipated, keeping true reform of the election system in the backseat, behind political and private interests. Instead of an overhaul, we'll have a patchwork of repairs, and no comprehensive vision.

As UCCS students learned, Balink has his own concerns about the election system. They're not, however, the worries of voters who just want to participate in their democracy. With that in mind, thinking of Balink rifling through your trash is less frightening than learning he scored a spot on the state Election Reform Commission.

How bad can it be?

Leading up to Nov. 4, many feared Colorado's election would go haywire.

Thousands of would-be voters had their registrations called into question after neglecting to check a box on the state's ill-designed voter registration forms. Thousands more got purged from the voting rolls in the run-up to the election, an apparent violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

Then "Sideshow Bob" Balink mounted his personal fight against out-of-state Colorado College students by sending out notices telling them they couldn't vote here if their parents claimed them as dependents. (Balink, apparently still sore after taking heat for this, told the UCCS class he "didn't disenfranchise any students," but just wanted to let them know that registering here could have tax implications for some families.)

But on the big day, huge, mainly Democratic, victories left little room for confusion and imbued many with the sense that the system works well, or at least well enough.

It nearly failed Linda Johnson and her husband. They registered in May 2008 soon after moving to Colorado Springs from Mississippi, and thought everything was fine when they received their ballots by mail. Then they got a phone call from a voting rights group saying they were among tens of thousands of Colorado residents whose registrations might have been improperly canceled.

Disbelieving, Johnson visited Balink's office and found out it was true. She managed to get their registrations reinstated, but was left feeling uncomfortable.

"You just don't tell a person, 'You can't do it,' without notifying," she says. "That's one of the things I like about America, my rights here. You don't take that for granted."

Common Cause, Mi Familia Vota and the Service Employees International Union filed suit on behalf of the purged voters. They reached an agreement in October allowing each voter to cast a provisional ballot, to be counted unless there was clear and convincing evidence of ineligibility.

They're still struggling for a permanent fix. They want rules changed to keep names from being purged within 90 days of the election, when there could be too little time to fix the problem, or from being nixed via the so-called 20-day rule, which requires clerks to send a notice to new registrants and to cancel registrations when the mail bounces back.

Myrna Prez, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, is helping that effort.

"We want the voter to have more notice and more protection," she says.

'An angry minority'

Colorado's Election Reform Commission, established by a bill the Legislature passed in 2008, did not speak out on those particular concerns.

In general, the group was charged with reviewing the election system and coming back with suggestions to "protect the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the state constitution by ensuring that every election ... is accurate, secure, transparent, verifiable, recountable, auditable and accessible." A specific problem had to do with the state's touch-screen voting machines, which appeared last year to be headed for the trash heap after failing to meet state standards.

In January 2008, Gov. Bill Ritter proposed the November election in Colorado be conducted all on paper ballots, but that prompted an outcry from county clerks and serious legislative backpedaling. Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who was elected to Congress in November, basically got permission to bend the rules for one election, allowing him to Band-Aid the machines into serviceability by drawing up elaborate conditions for their use.

(Notably, John Gardner was the main architect of these conditions for the state before returning to his old job as Balink's information systems manager. Despite strong evidence that Gardner lied about his education in 2006 court testimony and on job applications, he remained the tech guy in charge of El Paso County's voting machines during November's election, and he's still there today.)

With the law allowing temporary certification now expiring, the machines will turn back into pumpkins unless the Legislature passes a new law. The Election Reform Commission, with five county clerks, three lawyers, and only one computer guy among its 11 members, was expected to wave some sort of wand and come up with a solution.

To Al Kolwicz, a Boulder County Republican and election reform advocate, the idea of this happening was laughable, given the technical expertise needed to understand the issues.

"If they were making medical decisions, they'd be thrown in jail," says Kolwicz, who's developed operating systems for the likes of IBM.

The group ultimately came up with a compromise: Let the counties use the machines as they are through 2013, as long as they switch to an all-paper ballot system by 2014. Three members of the reform commission voted against the compromise, including Balink and Scott Gessler, a lawyer who has announced plans to run as a Republican for secretary of state in 2010.

Gessler loudly objected to the notion that the measure was a compromise, arguing in a Rocky Mountain News op-ed that former Sen. Ken Gordon, a Democrat who chaired the commission, "gamed" the vote by forcing the commission to choose between "contradictory policies," simultaneously halting improvements while phasing out the machines.

"To be sure, an angry minority wants to ban electronic machines based on unrealistic, hypothetical scenarios," Gessler writes. "In practice, electronic voting machines work and have worked for years."

Kolwicz and other election reform advocates see the problems as neither unrealistic nor hypothetical. Others see a different problem: The compromise aims to stop counties from spending money on the machines, so phasing them out will seem less of an imposition.

On a scale of gross inadequacy, however, machines in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties stand out. Touch-screen machines are supposed to have special printers attached, reassuring voters that buttons they pressed actually recorded the correct votes. But those two counties went with the stripped-down, economy versions, and so far have avoided having to pay for costly upgrades.

Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, an open government advocacy group, says counties running this deficient equipment "puts those voters at a disadvantage."

Missing records

Defenders of touch-screen machines, including Arapahoe County Clerk Nancy Doty, are fond of saying that the hubbub is based on paranoia and that there's no proof these machines have been tampered with during real elections.

That's just the thing that gets Kolwicz riled up: "We want to be able to verify the results are correct."

With machines like the ones used in Arapahoe County, there's no way to do that. Voters might leave thinking the machines recorded votes for their favored candidates, but at the end of the day, all you've got is a bunch of numbers, and no way to prove they reflect the voters' intentions.

Even printers don't seem to help that much. Jennifer Strait voted in late October on one of El Paso County's touch-screen machines. She had a technical question and asked an election judge to help her, but she became alarmed when he started pressing buttons, even after she stepped away from the machine.

Fearing he might have changed her vote, she asked to see the printout from her ballot. Officials said it was locked in a secure canister. (See "I voted (I think)" in the Oct. 20, 2008 Independent.)

Other purported safety measures for electronic voting machines do equally little to reassure voters. Diebold is the vendor that makes El Paso County's touch-screen machines, its scanners to read paper ballots, and the software that tabulates all the votes. The system is designed to provide a record so you can tell every time someone is in a position to see or even change those results.

Charles Corry, another computer expert who's skeptical of using these machines in elections, asked Balink in December for the audit logs from recent elections. The clerk's office denied access to the most recent logs by citing a 25-month preservation period, during which voting materials are supposed to be retained in case of a recount. The 2006 election logs should have been available but somehow, they'd gone missing.

The log, Corry says, would reveal "who entered the system, what they looked at." They've been used in Arizona and elsewhere to raise questions about misuse of election results or even outright hacking. If the logs are pristine, it's not clear why clerk's office wouldn't want to release them.

"What we need is full disclosure," Corry says.

Secretive organization

Electronic voting machines, statewide voter databases and other high-tech election solutions captured the electoral imagination following the 2000 recount fiasco in Florida. In 2003, the federal Help America Vote Act helped push those concepts into reality by sprinkling cash around the country and setting requirements for election officials.

Joe Richey, an election reform activist in Boulder, says that's about the time he got worried.

"As a result of HAVA, private vendors welded themselves onto key elements of our electoral process," Richey says, casting that development as part of broad privatization that occurred in the Bush years. "Those of us who don't think that's a good thing are having a hell of a time prying them off."

Colorado's elections are run by its 64 county clerks, all of whom are themselves elected. Sixty-three belong to the Colorado County Clerks Association, which holds conferences twice yearly to talk clerk issues and, more importantly, to meet with officials from companies that help them do their jobs.

Kolwicz and others have fought in vain for years to attend these meetings.

"We believe they are circumventing open records laws," he says, by making public-policy decisions in private. He worries the clerks "are being misled by the vendors."

In a March 2008 e-mail to Balink, Harvie Branscomb, another activist who's tried to get into clerk's meetings, said the association is "acting almost like a cult."

Branscomb accused Balink of becoming "secretive," to which Balink replied: "I am the most open and accessible county clerk you know."

Balink, however, declined to be interviewed by the Independent about his work on the commission, explaining in an e-mail that his election views are "pretty well-known." He did, however, suggest the group is misnamed: "The current name implies we need to 'reform' elections ... when we all know they are run pretty darn well in Colorado."

Low-tech solution?

But the commission's final recommendations do reflect some "reforms" close to Balink's heart. One is to require photo IDs for voters to register. Another, popular with many clerks, is a recommendation to allow primary elections to be conducted by mail ballot.

In general, some of the commission's recommendations could be good for the state if they become policy or law. One calls on the secretary of state to make election-related forms more consistent and easier to use.

Curiously, Balink voted "no" on this proposal and never has explained the vote.

The law establishing the Election Reform Commission stated members would be picked by the governor, the secretary of state and legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle. Some say the result was too "clerk-heavy."

"We thought it was missing a community voice," says Flanagan of Common Cause.

Notably, no election reform activists were offered a place (though Richey recorded the group's meetings and posted audio on his Web site, democraticwing.org).

Overall, Flanagan's take on the group's work is mixed. She likes a recommendation to let voters register online, but opposes the requirement of photo ID for registering.

"The impact is preventing eligible voters from participating," she says.

She also dislikes the general movement toward mail-ballot elections, which can be problematic for homeless voters, among others. Richey and other reform activists go further. There's been a rush toward high-tech solutions, Richey says, but a low-tech piece of paper still is a cheap, easy way to record a voter's intent. Together with private vendors, county clerks may have found vastly more expensive ways to keep that intent hidden.

"The battle cry," Richey says, "should be, 'We want our money back!'"

lane@csindy.com

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