Registration errors may thwart thousands of new voters from casting mail-in ballots

(Photo/aperryz302, Flickr)
(Photo/aperryz302, Flickr)

For weeks, the election season mantra in Colorado has been “vote by mail.” But that advice may cause some problems when new voters with incomplete registrations don’t receive their ballots.

Gov. Bill Ritter and several county clerks have consistently urged people to vote by mail this year, a practice thought to alleviate long lines at polling places on Election Day. As of last week, more than 1.3 million voters in the state had requested mail-in ballots.

Many newly registered voters this year opted to receive mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day. For instance, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), estimates that between one-third and one-half of the voters it registered in the state chose mail-in ballots.

But at least 22,000 new voters — those who requested mail-in ballots and those who didn’t — have been rejected from voter rolls because of errors on their application forms. Around 6,700 of these individuals suffer from the so-called “check box” problem on their registration forms. That is, they didn’t have a state identification or driver’s license and opted instead to write down the last four digits of their social security number but neglected to check a box on the form indicating as much. Other “check box” voters wrote down their social by accident, when they did indeed have a state ID.

“Check box” voters and others with incomplete registrations who opted to vote by mail are in a particularly precarious situation. These voters will simply not receive their ballots in the post until they change their registrations. They may still head to the polls for a provisional ballot on Election Day, but voting rights activists warn of serious confusion on what to do.

The number of flagged new voters expecting mail-in ballots is undetermined but is likely to be several thousand in keeping with the huge popularity of the vote-from-home option. If as many as 10,000 first time voters, half of those with questionable registrations, have difficulty casting ballots that could have significant implications on races with razor thin margins.

“This can be a real problem,” says Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit devoted to holding elected leaders accountable. “They will be expecting mail ballots. This comes down to the media’s role in educating voters, and the counties’, and the secretary of state’s.”

“Voters should know what their rights are,” she adds. “They can go to the county clerk and have the ballot re-sent to them or get a replacement ballot.”

Colorado Common Cause is one of several groups in an ongoing fight with Secretary of State Mike Coffman regarding the “check box” crowd. Last week, that organization, plus the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the Fair Elections Legal Network in Washington, D.C., issued a letter to Coffman demanding that he accept incomplete registrations into the system. Ritter also issued a strongly worded letter to Coffman, pressuring him to act. Coffman hasn’t yet acquiesced on the issue.

“We are not exactly done trying to fight this,” says Flanagan. “I am not willing to give in just yet. In the meantime there are things that voters can do to protect themselves.”

In Denver, people who don’t fix their applications ahead of time will be able to make changes on Election Day at the Elections Division or one of its satellite offices. Those who don’t amend their registrations, period, will still be able to vote by provisional ballots.

Still, says Flanagan, “it is much better to fix the problem before Election Day than to go to the polls and fix it. In all likelihood the policy is not going to change despite the fact that we think it should.”

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