Fraud in the forecast
Colorado watchdogs expect corrupt Nov. 4 election

SideStory: Getting registered – Oct. 6 deadline approaches

Volunteers at the Obama election headquarters in downtown Durango stay busy getting people registered and informed about the upcoming election. However, the 2008 election may come down to more than votes. Colorado watchdogs are concerned that Nov. 4 will be dominated by long lines at polls, voting mishaps and skewed results./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Colorado could actually have something in common with Florida and Ohio once Nov. 4 has come and gone. Fearing potential fraud, corruption and Election Day mishaps, watchdogs throughout the state are keeping a close eye on voting booths this year.

With its nine meager electoral votes, Colorado does not often come into play in a national presidential election. However, this year is different. In recent weeks, the Centennial State has increasingly been tagged as one of the key battleground states for candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. In August, The Pindell Report, a election tracker, moved Colorado from “leans Democrat” to a “toss-up swing state.” The analysis also graded Colorado the third-most competitive presidential swing state in the country.

These facts, along with expectations for record voter turn-out, have election officials scrambling in the weeks leading up to the election. Watchdog groups are also putting in overtime to make sure that local elections are above-board and free of corruption and errors.

Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, noted, “Our system is going to be tested more than ever before because of the attention our state is getting, because Colorado is a swing state and because of the volume of voters we’re expecting. I think all eyes are going to be on our state.”

Flanagan also fears that the state will fail this test. In the wake of the election, her group released a study of voting preparedness in all of the swing states. The report highlighted a number of significant problems in the basic functions of Colorado’s election administration system.

Flanagan noted that Colorado has vague standards for keeping polling places open and running smoothly, a fact that could lead to traffic jams and voters being turned away from the polls on Nov. 4. More significantly, Colorado will be using a new and untested voter registration database system, known as SCORE, in the 2008 election.

“Anytime, you introduce new 4 technology, it’s got to raise a red flag,” Flanagan said. “Here we have a new voter database system that’s untested. Voters may not appear or through some glitch, there may also be errors.”

To make matters worse, the technology should have been online in 2006. However, Colorado is two years behind the Help America Vote Act mandate, due in part to the original vendor violating its contract and Colorado having to return to square one.

Nonethelees, the database was deployed to all 64 counties in April following a test run.

As Colorado’s chief election official, Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman is the man responsible for testing SCORE. In May, Coffman’s office held a mock exercise simulating a primary election. “I’m pleased that the election met the goals we set and was ultimately a success,” Coffman said.

However, Colorado Common Cause tells a different story. Flanagan noted that several counties have opted not to use the new system after their own independent tests and the appearance of major glitches in the SCORE system.

Coffman took another controversial step in March this year when he announced that Colorado would be “re-certifying” several optical scanners and central count scanners for use as voting machines in the 2008 election. The machines had been deemed defective and ordered de-certified following a June 2006 lawsuit brought by a group of Colorado voters. In that case, the Denver District Court ruled against the Secretary of State’s Office, noting that the office failed to “develop minimum standards” for the scanners. However, the same “defective” machines will be back in action on Nov. 4 following Coffman’s recent re-certification.

“I’m heading into Nov. 4 with very little confidence,” said Claudia Kuhns, executive director of the Public Integrity Project.. “We know the machines are bad, and the recertification was basically a sham.”

Kuhns added that there are many other potential hitches in the coming Colorado election. In 2006, then-Republican Secretary of State Gigi Dennis went through the voter rolls in an effort to eliminate ineligible voters. That “purge” resulted in a staggering 19.4 percent of Colorado voters being removed because they no longer met state residency qualifications or had committed a felony.

“That’s a staggering number,” Kuhns said. “It’s far and away the largest purge of any state in the country. I’m concerned that eligible voters all over the state, and especially in Denver, have been purged.”

Shortly after the purge, Dennis resigned her post late in 2006 to take a job with the local power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Her successor, Coffman, is on a similar track out of Denver. In addition to monitoring the Nov. 4 election, the current secretary of state is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The conflict of interest has given watchdog group, ProgressNowAction, cause to call for Coffman’s resignation.

“The top election official for the state has had conflict of interest after conflict of interest,” Michael Huttner, the group’s executive director, said. “The fox is clearly guarding the hen house in Colorado.”

ProgressNowAction and Colorado Ethics Watch have alleged that Coffman has been misusing his office. The groups have identified hundreds of hours of on-clock-campaigning by him.

“Coffman’s official duties are clearly taking a back seat to his congressional campaign,” said Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “It’s no wonder he has been heavily criticized by both parties for botching the voter certification process and setting the state up for a potentially disastrous election this fall.”

For his part, Coffman has confidence that Nov. 4 will be smooth, fair and uneventful from an eleciton official’s perspective. In his most recent “Speak Out” column, Coffman wrote, “I don’t believe that voting on paper ballots is less subject to the potential for fraud than voting on electronic machines or voting by mail. The integrity of the election process is much less about the type of voting system used than it is about the integrity of the election workers entrusted to make sure that the elections are fair, honest and transparent.”



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