Saguache County election debacle still unresolved even as officials set to be sworn in

Saguache County Clerk Melinda Myers sits behind an ES&S M650 ballot-scanning machine. With just days before newly elected officials are scheduled to be sworn in, the results of the Nov. 2 election in Saguache County are still in dispute. Photo by Teresa Benns/Center Post Dispatch.

A disputed election in a sleepy county in south-central Colorado has erupted into a cacophony of bipartisan complaints that the clerk and recorder is improperly certifying its results for her own benefit.

So far, six citizens have filed grievances with both the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office alleging official misconduct and multiple criminal offenses in sparsely populated Saguache County, where the census shows just two residents per square mile.

One of the six members of the canvass board, which is refusing to certify the election results citing a litany of infractions, says the county clerk, Melinda Myers, “is playing fast and loose with the rules.”

The clerk and recorder, meanwhile, is standing her ground. With the backing of the county attorney and board of commissioners, Myers said she “welcomes the scrutiny” and doesn’t fear a challenge in court.

‘Nothin’ went right’

On the night of Nov. 2, unofficial results showed incumbent Saguache County Clerk Melinda Myers, a Democrat, lost to her Republican challenger, Carla Gomez, by 15 votes: 1,116 to 1,101. Another incumbent Democrat on the ticket, Saguache County Commissioner Linda Joseph, that night unofficially lost to her Republican challenger, Steven Carlson, by 27 votes: 1,119 to 1,092.

Three days later, those numbers changed and, in turn, flipped the outcome of both races.

It was determined that a glitch in the software for the ballot-scanning machine, which the county purchased for $54,000 just weeks before, had excluded 197 ballots from the election night count.

A re-tabulation on Nov. 5 nudged the Democrat incumbents, Myers and Joseph, in front of Gomez and Carlson. When overseas and provisional ballots were counted Nov. 17, their leads widened, with Myers tallying 1,227 votes to Gomez’s 1,166 and Joseph’s total reaching 1,204 votes to Carlson’s 1,178.

A series of blunders and curiosities observed during the election is casting Myers in a dubious light, according to some residents directly involved in the election and others who have followed it closely.

“There were a whole lot of things that came together to make it look like she stole the election. Whether she did, I don’t know,” said Allen Jones, who worked as a judge for the election. “The clerk’s saying, ‘Everything went fine. It was a great election.’ Everyone else is saying nothin’ went right.”

Because of breaches in the chain of custody of the ballots, Jones and many others don’t trust the results.

Complaints first began rolling into the Colorado Elections Division shortly after the August primary. Two citizens complained that ballots were kept in boxes that were not sealed, that the ballots were not sorted by precinct or kept in proper order and that some judges didn’t sign tally sheets. The complaints raised enough questions that the state sent an election trainer to observe the Nov. 2 election.

White stickers and incomplete ovals

A report from the Colorado Elections Division on Dec. 10 found that some logs during the primary were inconsistent and incomplete and that ballots were stored with other election materials like envelopes, poll books and voting system reports that resulted in seals often getting broken.

During the review of the general election, the Colorado Election Division determined “election judges were not properly resolving ballots that could not be read by the central count scanner. Ballots are often rendered unreadable when an elector marks more than one target area either inadvertently or to correct a previously marked choice. When a ballot is rendered unreadable, a team of election judges must review the ballot to determine the voter’s intent in accordance with the Voter Intent Guide. … Election Rule 27 defines unreadable ballots as damaged ballots and requires that all damaged ballots be duplicated. Rather than duplicating damaged ballots, the election judges in Saguache County were incorrectly instructed by their voting system vendor to amend the ballots so that they could be read by the machine. The methods of amendment consisted of placing a white sticker over the target area that was not to be counted, or by filling in the target area that was to be counted.”

State officials said Saguache County is in need of further election training (pdf).

In her defense, Myers offers: “You don’t have control of the people who run your election,” so she can’t help it if the officials she oversaw made some mistakes. “It was a perfect storm of really unfortunate circumstances that kept happening in this election. There was a glitch here and a glitch there.”

There were enough glitches and confusion that the canvass board that had initially certified the election the first day its members convened on Friday, Nov. 19, reversed course and rescinded the certification the next business day, Monday, Nov. 22, after learning more about what their authorization entailed.

The canvass board wrote that it was not able to participate in or observe the post-election audit as required by Colorado law; information the board requested from Myers was not provided; the ballot-scanning machine used for the election may have been operated improperly; and a written complaint from a Saguache County elector had not been addressed to the canvass board’s satisfaction.

Lisa Cyriaks, a Democrat and canvass board member representing the library district, which saw a ballot question approved in its favor, said Myers coerced them to sign off on the results Nov. 19.

“We were misled. We were told it was a formality for us to sign it. At that time we were never informed that we were supposed to either observe or conduct the audit ourselves. We had no idea of the validity of the audit’s contents,” Cyriaks said. “There were things Clerk Myers told us that she subsequently said she misunderstood the instructions from the secretary of state’s office. So we talked about it that Sunday [Nov. 21] and put a letter together, signed it and sent it in the next day [Monday, Nov. 22].”

She said the county is “playing fast and loose with the rules, which really contributed to this debacle.”

The Colorado Elections Division concluded it was treating the canvass board’s concerns as a “statement of non-certification” for Saguache County’s local races, but that it would “complete its statutory requirement to compile and total the results for statewide offices and issues.” After balancing the number of ballots cast with the precinct poll books, the Colorado Elections Division also stated on Dec. 10 that it “is confident that the ballot tabulation from Nov. 5, 2010, was the correct tabulation.”

‘There is real concern’

Not everyone is as confident.

Saguache County Treasurer Connie Trujillo is in the unenviable position of collecting increased property taxes to fund school and library projects that voters in November unquestionably endorsed. A tax hike for the ambulance district passed by a mere one vote, according to the clerk and recorder.

With the canvass board holding out on its certification of the results, Trujillo is concerned (pdf) she is putting her office at risk of taxpayers who may challenge the legality of the higher tax assessments.

“We get at least one phone call or e-mail a day and on some days we get many phone calls and e-mails,” Trujillo said. “Last week, for example, we collected prepaid taxes from many individuals that do that and 99 percent of the people who came into our office were discussing it. … I want to be very clear what direction we are moving in and what I should be doing legally. There is real concern.”

Trujillo’s concerns precipitated a discussion at the regularly scheduled county commissioners meeting Tuesday in which Myers and county attorney Ben Gibbons declared (pdf) that the canvass board’s withdrawal of certification would not be recognized because, they argue, it came too late.

The treasurer is not convinced Myers and Gibbons are correct.

“I’m feeling the same as I did before,” Trujillo said after the meeting.

“The impression I got from (Saguache County officials who spoke at Tuesday’s county commissioner meeting) is that they’re going to take a stand and hope no one sues them,” said Cyriaks.

No one is suing them yet, but at least six citizens have filed complaints with the district attorney’s office and Colorado Attorney John Suthers accusing Myers and Gibbons of crimes and misdemeanors. One of them is Center Post Dispatch newspaper reporter Teresa Benns, who claims she has been obstructed from observing the election process and has photos of officials improperly handling election materials. Colorado Union of Taxpayers President Marty Neilson also filed a grievance (pdf) with the authorities.

“There are just so many irregularities in this election that need to see the light of day,” said Neilson, who lives in Boulder County. “That’s the reason we’ve done it. There were four ballot questions having to do with taxes and debt that have been certified without the proper certification of the canvass board.”

Others filing a complaint with 12th Judicial District Attorney and Colorado Attorney General’s offices include Cyriaks, Saguache County voter Nancy Johnson, Aspen election transparency crusader Marilyn Marks and Carlson, the Republican county commissioner candidate whose victory was overturned.

Clerk says she did nothing wrong

As they are across the state, newly elected officials in Saguache County are scheduled to be sworn in on Tuesday.

“Do I feel I had the election stolen from me?” Carlson wondered aloud. “I won the election the night of Nov. 2, then it was turned around the night of Nov. 5. It seemed it was legitimate but when they counted the military votes and the overseas votes, statistically speaking it didn’t trend like the rest of the election did. It certainly left one to wonder how did that happen and what did happen here?”

He said that if corruption did occur, it might be hard to prove.

“There’s been lots of things done, and in my mind and the minds of many others down here, if anyone was stuffing the ballot box, that evidence has been covered up,” Carlson said. “It would take a forensic investigation to uncover that kind of stuff. It’s very costly. That’s probably not going to happen.”

Saguache County is one of Colorado’s poorest areas. One in five families live below the poverty line.

Carlson and others said they may consider mounting a recall election targeting Myers in May.

Myers said if her office is ever taken to court, she can clearly document that she ran a clean election.

“We have every piece of paper here in our vault for inspection,” the embattled clerk and recorder said. “We are ready to back up everything we say with documentation.”

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.