A proposal to change the availability of voting centers across the state is splitting voting rights groups between those who favor saving money and those who say closing voting centers will disenfranchise voters who need them most.
This week’s state Capitol hearing on Senate Bill 16-112 marks the first legislative action on a half-dozen proposals designed to change Colorado’s voting laws in time for this year’s election.
Sponsored by Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican, the bill would change the availability of voting service centers in counties with at least 75,000 voters.
Since Colorado went to an all-mail ballot election system in 2013, voters who want to cast their ballots in person no longer do so in their precincts, but at voting service centers maintained by their county. Current law requires one center for each 30,000 voters during the early voting period that starts 15 days before the general election. Each county, regardless of size, must have at least one voting center.
Under Tate’s bill, the law would require fewer centers – one per 75,000 voters for the first seven days of early voting. During the last seven days, the county would maintain one voting center per 30,000 voters. The bill also would nix a requirement that voting centers be open on the first Saturday of the 15-day early voting period.
The measure has divided voting rights groups that traditionally have agreed on voting legislation.
The League of Women Voters supports the bill because of its potential cost savings. In opposition are Colorado Common Cause and COLOR, the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.
In December, Hayle Johnson, clerk and recorder for Jackson County, told The Independent that not a single person came to the voting center in her county to vote in November. The cost to her county to update and maintain the machines that nobody used was $21,000.
But Johnson noted that even if one voter needed the electronic voting machine the expense would be worth it.
The League of Women Voters — which usually advocates for improved voting access — disagrees. League representative Carol Tone told The Independent that the small turnout in voting centers during the first week renders the current law wasteful.
“There isn’t much use, it’s an expense and they have to hire people to be there,” she said. “We just don’t feel it’s a necessity for that first week.”
Colorado Common Cause is opposed to the bill, both because of its timing and because of its intent to cut back on early voting in some communities. Executive Director Elena Nunez pointed out that when election reform was passed in 2013, the coalition that worked on the bill agreed to re-evaluate the number of voting systems after the 2016 presidential election. It’s too soon to tinker with the law now, she said.
Nunez also noted that making voting centers less available will disenfranchise voters who tend to use them most — younger voters who wait until the last minute.
“It’s important we give voters options to cast their ballots, and the bill would significantly reduce those options in the first week,” Nunez said. What that means is that people would either have to wait a week or drive longer distances to a voting center that is open during the first week.
“For a voter who needs assistance or wants to vote on an accessible voting machine, if there isn’t a voting center in your community, your option is to either wait or chose not to vote. It’s not an acceptable trade-off.”
COLOR’s Cristina Aguilar is also opposed to SB 112. “We should be eliminating obstacles to voting, not creating more,” she said in a statement. “We should do more to ensure that people are able to vote, not roll back important gains in voting opportunities.”
Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, reminded the committee about the 2013 agreement to revisit the voting center issue after the 2016 election. He also pointed out that voting centers do more than just provide voting machines; they also allow people to register to vote, update voting information, or obtain a replacement ballot.
Tate, the bill’s GOP sponsor, attempted a similar bill last year that had all of the language of SB 112, plus provisions to cut the number of voting centers on Election Day by half. That bill never made it out of its first committee hearing.
This year’s version was approved Monday on a party-line 3-2 vote by the Republican-majority Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
Tate’s bill is the first of at least eight bills that would change election or campaign finance laws in time for the 2016 election.
The proposals include plans to require a state-issued photo identification to vote, to let voters opt-out on automatic mail ballots, and to require the Secretary of State to buy 24-hour accessible ballot drop boxes and surveillance cameras for each county.
Six of the eight measures are sponsored solely by Republicans and are triggering early criticism from voting rights groups – which may prove problematic when those bills reach the Democrat-controlled House.
Photo credit: Jared and Corin, Creative Commons, Flickr.