County officials fire back
Secretary of State puts Routt on Colorado Election Watch List through 2008
Steamboat Springs — Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush criticized Secretary of State Mike Coffman for making political hay in the name of election reform Wednesday after he announced the county now is on Colorado’s Election Watch List.
“He made the decision a long time ago. This is a politically driven decision,” Mitsch Bush said. “He is advancing his own political agenda.”
Mitsch Bush is a Democrat and Coffman a Republican. But Mitsch Bush was joined by Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak and County Clerk Kay Weinland, both Republicans, in expressing “strong disappointment” in Coffman’s decision.
Routt County joins four other counties – Denver, Douglas, Pueblo and Montrose – on the Election Watch List, which is meant to correct problems like the unusually long lines Routt County voters experienced on election day in November 2006. Pueblo and Montrose were found to have been in violation of election laws. That is not the case with Routt County.
Weinland’s office was working last fall to implement new voting machines that had been used once during the August primary. At the same time, local officials were trying to meet new election security rules.
In a report dated April 3, Coffman’s department concludes that although Routt County met state law by providing at least one voting booth per 400 voters, the problems in Steamboat were due in part to mistakes in the placement of voting machines around the county.
“The allocation of the voting machines was miscalculated,” the report reads. “One Steamboat Springs Voter Center had three times as many voters as a voter center in the southern part of the county, but only had twice the number of machines. These difficulties with allocation likely contributed to the wait times experienced by voters.”
The Watch List represents a form of probation that will remain in place at least through the general election of 2008. Coffman expressed optimism that Routt County will succeed in solving the issues.
“I am extremely encouraged by the steps Clerk Weinland and other county officials have taken since November’s election,” Coffman said in a written statement. “I have confidence in Clerk Weinland’s leadership, and I believe the problems Routt County voters faced last November will not be repeated. However, the fact remains that voters had to wait in lines for up to four hours. That is unacceptable and warrants inclusion on the Watch List.”
County officials counter that there was no need to place Routt County on the Watch List given the corrective measures.
Mitsch Bush said Routt County already is well on the way to meeting the remedial steps called for by the Secretary of State, and Coffman knew that before coming here in late March. She is wary Coffman will use Routt County’s efforts to take credit for election reforms.
“We’ll spend any amount necessary to acquire enough voting machines,” Mitsch Bush said. “Our plan is that no voter waits longer than 30 minutes. Our plan goes far beyond the Secretary of State’s plan.”
Jonathan Tee, communications director for the Colorado Department of State, said the steps taken by Routt County and the bipartisan Routt County Citizens Election Review Committee since the election were not a factor in Coffman’s decision. Instead, he said, it was a relatively straightforward decision based on “mismanagement of the election such that voters may have been turned away.”
“The core reason (Routt County was placed on the list) is the fact that voters had to wait in four-hour lines until 11 p.m.,” Tee said.
Tee cited the text of an e-mail Coffman sent to county clerks March 12 when he announced the creation of the Election Watch List.
It read in part: “If a county has violated election statutes or mismanaged the election to the point of disenfranchising voters, that county will be placed on the Election Watch List.”
The commissioners believed, based on what they read in Coffman’s March 12 e-mail, that they would go through a more formal inquiry process and be given more opportunity for a formal response before being added to the Election Watch List.
The Secretary of State’s office and Routt County officials agree that the long waits experienced by voters last November were unacceptable. However, the county commissioners believe Coffman’s decision was unnecessary. Stahoviak called it a very dramatic step.
Weinland felt particularly misled by an e-mail from a member of Coffman’s staff, Stephanie Cegielski, which was sent to her in advance of the visit.
It read: “The secretary is trying to determine if he should attend or if he should send me. Please, please, please do not panic, the presence of either of us is merely for informational purposes. We have reviewed your voter turnout historically and were not alarmed with how it trended in relation to the 2006 election.”
Weinland said she is “discouraged and disheartened,” as well as concerned that Coffman’s decision could erode voter confidence as Routt County works to move beyond the difficulties of November 2006.
– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205
or e-mail email@example.com
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