Colorado’s confusing voter registration form has prompted county clerks to reject at least 4,800 new voter applications. And while election officials say there’s still time for the applicants to get onto voter rolls, watchdog groups warn of unintended disenfranchisement.
Colorado’s Secretary of State office issued a new voter registration form this year to allow applicants the option to permanently receive a mail-in ballot. But in its inaugural year, the form has caused confusion among voter registration groups and the more than 215,000 people they’ve signed up. At issue is the ID requirement in the state. An applicant with a Colorado driver’s license or a state ID must enter his or her ID number on the form. In the case that the individual does not have either of those cards, that person may enter the last four digits of his or her social security number plus check a box to indicate that he or she doesn’t have a state card.
Problem is, thousands of applicants — most of them students from out of state, as well as elderly individuals without driver’s licenses — have accidentally entered their social security numbers without checking the box. Others who do have driver’s licenses have entered their social security numbers anyway. In Denver alone, around 3,100 applicants have been kept off the rolls for this so-called “check box” problem. And in Boulder, another 1,700 applicants have been rejected for that and other registration form problems. But many more could be rejected in the next few days. Voter registration ended on Monday, and county clerks are still processing forms.
“Large numbers of people are not going to make it onto the voter registration rolls for a minor mistake,” says Sarah Brannon, staff attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network, a nonpartisan voter participation group in Washington, D.C. “The form could be more clearly worded. There are questions about the fairness of not allowing people to get on the voter rolls.”
“The impact [of the new form] is much greater than expected,” adds Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Common Cause, a Colorado nonprofit aimed at holding elected leaders accountable. “There are many registration forms without the box checked that include the social security number.”
According to ACORN (short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a national nonpartisan group that has registered more than 65,000 new voters in Colorado, the Denver County clerk’s office warned registration circulators a few weeks ago about the problem.
“Denver called us and said, ‘We are getting a few too many people with driver’s licenses putting down the last four numbers of their social,” says Ben Hanna, ACORN’s Colorado director.
In order to prevent more problems, Hanna’s circulators made sure to ask applicants trying to use their social security number if they had a driver’s license at home. If they answered ‘yes,’ the circulators told the applicants to come back with that ID, rather than risk having a faulty application rejected by county clerks. And if applicants were indeed eligible to use their social, the circulators asked them to check the little box.
But, says Hanna, “There’s only so much that we can do. At the end of the day our circulators place no marks on the form and they don’t fill them out. It is on the applicant.”
The Boulder and Denver county clerks offices have notified applicants with deficient registration forms so they can fix them before the election. In order to vote early, applicants must amend their forms before Oct. 20. Otherwise, they must make the changes by Oct. 31, when, says Denver County Clerk and Recorder spokesman Alton Dillard, the county finalizes its poll book. Representatives from the Secretary of State’s office did not return phone calls seeking clarification on the issue.
Dillard pooh-poohs the idea that the check box problem will end in voter disenfranchisement. “[Registration issues] happen every election,” he says. “The talk going on about people being denied the right to vote because of this is incorrect.”
But others are not so sure. “I don’t know what the outcome will be,” says Brannon.