Changes to El Paso County precinct boundaries spark caucus confusion

Erik (HASH) Hersman


UPDATE, Feb. 3: El Paso County Clerk and Recorder spokesman Ryan Parsell said he misspoke when he told The Independent voters were notified about recent changes in precinct boundaries. Voters were not notified, he says. You can read an updated story about this here

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — Officials for both major political parties in El Paso County say they’re concerned about potential confusion on caucus day as March 1 approaches.

That’s when voters across the southern Colorado county will head out for an evening with their neighbors to talk politics, select party delegates, and help pick a president. (The Colorado Independent has written about both the Democratic and Republican caucus processes.)

But this year, because of a county commission’s recent re-drawing of precinct lines, some voters might be unaware of where to go.

Officials from the El Paso County Democratic and Republican parties are urging caucus-goers to double check their voting registration cards or find out online if their precinct numbers and locations have changed. Voters can do so at the Secretary of State’s website, either political party’s county website, or by contacting the El Paso County Clerk & Recorder’s Elections Division at (719) 575-8683.

Why did precinct districts change?

In 2013, lawmakers passed new election laws that allowed county commissions to re-draw precinct lines because of population growth. Some precincts in El Paso County had grown larger than the allowable maximum of 2,000 registered voters. Counties were allowed to wait two years to re-draw the map, and both the county Democratic and Republican parties agreed to hold off, says El Paso County Clerk and Recorder spokesman Ryan Parsell. So in the spring of 2015, county commissioners redrew precinct lines for the county that encompasses Colorado Springs, the state’s second largest city.

What that means: A voter who caucused at a certain location during the last presidential election in 2012 might not be able to do so at that same location this time around. How many voters were affected in El Paso County wasn’t immediately clear.

“It’s not a huge number of people,” Parsell told The Colorado Independent. (UPDATE: The number is 61,919 voters.)

What concerns some party officials in El Paso County is the way voters were notified— if they were notified— that their precincts had changed. The County Clerk and Recorder’s office sent out new precinct cards if a voter’s precinct number changed, but the card didn’t exactly spell out what that meant, says Parsell.

“It doesn’t say specifically … ‘your precinct number has changed,’” he says of the cards that went out after the lines were re-drawn. Instead, he says, the card that went out was the same kind a voter gets in the mail any time something about their registration file has changed, like a new address.

At least one voter whose precinct changed doesn’t believe he was notified.

“Being a political person, I keep all my notifications I get from the county clerk,” says Colorado Springs Democratic activist and high school math teacher Bob Nemanich. “We never received anything. There are four voters in our house who never got one. And I’m a precinct chair.”

El Paso County Democratic Party chairwoman Kathleen Ricker, whose precinct changed, also doesn’t recall getting a notification. And if she did, she says just an update card without specifying what the update means in practical terms isn’t enough notice for voters.

At least one precinct chair had also approached county party brass to complain about his inability to access online voter access networks to organize his neighborhood caucus because he didn’t know his precinct number had changed and couldn’t log in.

But that’s nothing compared to what might happen on caucus day if affected voters show up to the wrong place, Ricker says.

“We are very concerned about the confusion in our caucuses,” she says. “We want to be the professional organization we know we are, and this is a whole lot of work for us to try to get out the word that you’ve got to go check. We obviously can’t contact all these voters ourselves.”

For Elena Nunez, who watchdogs elections for Colorado Common Cause in Denver, the situation highlights the friction between county governments, which oversee elections and voting rolls, and the political parties, which oversee the caucuses.

Either way, she says, “The reality is most voters don’t pay attention to a postcard notice.”

Nemanich says he’s concerned about who might benefit more from any potential chaos in the caucus process the new boundary lines might cause. “Confusion only serves the incumbent political establishment, which is the Republican Party of El Paso County,” he says.

The county clerks office’s Parsell told The Colorado Independent that at the time the re-precincting changes were made, officials from both county parties in El Paso said they were satisfied with the result.

“I would say no party worked out better than the other,” he says. “I think they both got most of what they wanted and when they couldn’t it had to do with statutory conflicts or something like that. I think it was a good process. I’d say from what they told us they were happy with it.”

Mike Maday, a Democratic precinct chair in Colorado Springs, says the heavily Republican area has long been a place that can be difficult for Democratic voters looking for local representation. He points out that the county commissioners who approved the new precinct lines are all Republicans, and there hasn’t been a Democrat on the El Paso County commission since around 1975. He says in recent election years he’s had to fight to get early voting locations in the Southeast part of the city where there’s a large population of minorities.

Maday is still trying to figure out what the new precinct map looks like and what it means for Democratic voters in the county.

Meanwhile, with the caucuses approaching, officials for the Democratic and Republican parties in El Paso County might not agree on much, but they do agree on one thing: The potential for confusion on the March 1 caucus day.

The precinct changes will be “a hassle for all of the voters,” says Daniel Cole, director of the El Paso County GOP. And that’s a problem, he says, “especially in a caucus state like Colorado where one’s precinct is central in participating in the caucus process.”

Cole says he thinks the county commissioners did a good job with the re-precinting, and it’s probably too expensive for the county to mail out special notifications to all affected voters about the specific change. He also points to media coverage in the local daily newspaper around the time of the changes — complete with a map and database. He worries, however, that many caucus-goers might have missed it or won’t remember.

These days, Cole says he’s probably getting 20 phone calls a day at the county GOP office from voters wanting to know their caucus location, and for some it’s a different place from the last time they participated.

“But there are a lot of people who don’t call, and simply assume that nothing has changed,” he says.

The changes to precinct caucus locations are not specific to El Paso County, says Ben Schlear, an elections staffer at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. He said other counties had also gone through re-precincting. How those counties notified voters of the change — or plan to — remains to be seen.


Photo credit: Erik (HASH) Hersman via Flickr