Why a misinformed election worker kicked me out of the polls

Colorado voters had a relatively smooth ride in the polling places Tuesday. But not so for this reporter. I was ejected from a Ruby Hill voting site in Denver, with one election worker threatening to call the police. Why? Because I was trying to do my job.

As Colorado Independent’s election administration reporter, I wrote extensively in the past three weeks about people who never made it onto the voting rolls because of glitches with their registrations. Dan Aschenbrenner, whose name appeared on a Project Vote purge list, was one such person.

Dan had a peculiar story. A 48-year-old Denver native, he registered to vote for the first time in September when he was approached outside an Albertson’s grocery store. But because he accidentally neglected to check a little box on his registration form, his name never made it onto the voting rolls. When the Colorado Independent contacted Dan last week, he was unsurprised to learn of the problem, chalking it up to partisan shenanigans that had deterred him from wanting to vote in the first place.

However, Dan intended to vote anyway, and he agreed to let me come along with him to see if he could successfully cast a ballot. I wondered, in particular, if he would be handed a provisional form instead of a regular ballot, one that would be counted two weeks after Election Day. Since Dan was a “check box” voter, I figured that he would be able to fix his registration and vote a regular ballot at the poll, per a last-minute order by Denver County Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O’Malley.

Dan and I arrived at empty Godsman Elementary School in southwest Denver around 1 p.m. Tuesday. Dan checked in with the poll workers, one of whom ushered me to her director once I identified myself as a journalist. Barbara Stuart, the poll worker supervisor, told me that I was not allowed to speak with Dan or even follow him silently as he checked in. That amounted to electioneering, she insisted — the same charge applied to people who show up to the polls wearing Barack Obama or John McCain T-shirts — and it violated federal law. I told Barbara that I didn’t mean to be difficult, but as a nonpartisan journalist, I was not electioneering. And I had no intention of entering the polling booth with Dan.

Barbara, who was growing angry at this point, reiterated that I was not allowed to follow Dan, even though he had agreed to it. She also said I could speak only with certain election workers. And then she told me that I was being difficult, and that she had the right to call police.

When I asked Barbara to quote me the specific election law that precluded my presence, she couldn’t. Instead, she called her supervisor, who put in an information request to the city’s legal team. And then Barbara kicked me out of the polling site.

Several phone calls later, I finally figured out what happened to me. Barbara, it turns out, was wrong. Hanging with Dan in the polling place did not violate electioneering law. But Barbara did have the right to enforce a different election law, one to keep observers — including journalists — 6 feet away from voters. However, that law is meant to keep crowded polling places from jamming up.

“The 6-foot rule applies to all poll watchers and journalists,” says Denver Clerk and Recorder spokeswoman Tina Romero. “In very busy times, it’s a rule that assists judges in being able to orchestrate their duties.” Funny. The Godsman Elementary School was all but empty.

“It sounds like [Barbara] took her responsibilities very seriously, and maybe too seriously. She was too overzealous,” says Romero. “That happens at some of the locations.”

“It’s too bad that she couldn’t be more understanding.”

When Dan finished at the polling place, I chatted with him for a few minutes across the street. A man in a car covered with McCain-Palin stickers drove by and snapped a photo of me. Turns out that this voting rights activist saw my interaction with Barbara and wanted a photo of me.

Dan, by the way, also got the bum’s rush. He ended up voting with a provisional form when he should have been able to vote with a regular ballot. But you can read that story here.

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