First there was Florida. Then there was Ohio. Will Colorado be next?
The state’s got a brand new voter database system, the longest ballot in the nation and hundreds of thousands of new voter registrations to contend with, all of which raise the specter of chaos at the polls come November. And while elections officials maintain that Colorado can pull off its elections without a hitch, several voter watchdog groups say otherwise.
Election turmoil in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004 was caused by a number of factors, from election worker shortages to voting machine malfunctions. While Colorado shares some but not all of these problems, the biggest question mark in the state is whether or not a new voter database system, called SCORE (which stands for Statewide Colorado Registration and Election) will perform up to snuff.
Colorado rolled out the SCORE program this year — two years later than anticipated and, at last count, more than $3 million over budget — in order to comply with the Help America Vote Act. The 2002 congressional mandate was a response to the 2000 Florida election fiasco in which voter disenfranchisement and disputed ballots called the final tally into question. HAVA aimed to ameliorate problems with voting systems across the United States. In Colorado, the Secretary of State’s Office implemented SCORE and purchased a number of electronic voting machines to adhere to the new regulations.
Those machines were the subject of a major controversy last year, when Secretary of State Mike Coffman decertified and later recertified the equipment under a cloud of suspicion. But while the voting machine debacle has quieted down, SCORE’s performance has yet to be judged.
Often referred to as an “electronic poll book,” SCORE compiles statewide voter information into a single database. When a voter goes to the polls, he or she will be asked to check in using the SCORE system.
“I suspect it is going to work,” says Larimer County Clerk and Recorder Scott Doyle. “I hope.”
But difficulties could arise if new voters’ registrations are not properly entered into the system ahead of Election Day.
“Because we have had such a massive voter registration effort, we expect to see problems where people think they are registered but actually find they are not at the polls,” says Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Common Cause, a Colorado nonprofit aimed at holding elected leaders accountable.
“With the close of registration we see massive amounts of forms coming in and the counties have to process those forms and be in touch with any voter that might have a problem,” she adds. Colorado voter registration ended on Monday, but those who registered before the deadline will have the chance to amend their applications in the case that they made a mistake or an omission. More than 215,000 new voters have signed up since January.
In addition, there are questions as to whether the system will be overrun when poll workers across Colorado log in en masse.
“This is a new system. This will be the first general election they use it,” says Sarah Brannon, staff attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., devoted to increasing voter participation. “People will be using the system throughout the course of the day to check voters into the system. So there is a question of whether there will be an overload of use.”
An estimated 20,000 Denver County voters left the polls before casting a ballot in 2006 after an epic electronic poll book failure that prevented elections officials from confirming the eligibility of voters, causing long lines and short tempers. Sequoia Voting Systems, the firm that received the no-bid database contract, blamed “user error” on poll workers. A former software firm owner who served as an Election Day poll book judge told The Colorado Independent days after the 2006 election that a faulty, untested and possibly unfinished product constantly crashed when poll workers across the county logged in.
In order to avoid that fate, some counties have opted to print a paper poll book to check off voters.
“I don’t have any inclination that it will fall apart, but it is something we are watching very closely,” says Flanagan. “Every county is going to be different whether it uses the electronic poll book or a paper one.”
While elections groups warn of possible SCORE problems, the Secretary of State’s Office remains confident about the program. Spokesman Rich Coolidge did not return a Monday phone call seeking comment, but the Durango Telegraph recently quoted Coffman expressing his optimism after a mock primary election using SCORE was held last May. “I’m pleased that the election met the goals we set and was ultimately a success,” he told the Telegraph.
Though SCORE’s performance has yet to be determined, Colorado could face problems akin to those in Florida and Ohio. In 2000, Florida’s election hold-up had to do with faulty voting machines that miscounted votes.
“We have a history of problems with voting machines,” says Flanagan, referring to Coffman’s decertification and subsequent recertification of electronic voting systems statewide. “It is a potential issue we might see.”
And in Ohio, the hours-long lines of 2004 could be replicated here unless each county takes care to adequately staff its polling places. “In Colorado, we don’t have specific formulas to require how we set up our polling places,” says Flanagan. “That is something we are at risk for but we haven’t had huge problems in the past.”
Flanagan says that she won’t be the only one in the state who will be closely monitoring the election. Her organization, Common Cause, has joined with members of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, Latina Initiative and the League Center for People with Disabilities and Older People to form Just Vote Colorado, a group devoted to tracking and assisting with the election.
But there will also be other eyes on the state as well come Nov. 4. “Because it is going to be a close election the political parties are going to be looking at every nuance,” she says.