Garfield County’s election will be under close scrutiny
For months, Garfield County voters have focused on the candidates seeking to become their next county commissioners, state lawmakers, members of Congress, and president of the United States.Come Election Day, a lot of voters’ eyes will turn toward the people in charge of fairly operating polling places and accurately counting votes.By Dennis WebbPost Independent StaffFor months, Garfield County voters have focused on the candidates seeking to become their next county commissioners, state lawmakers, members of Congress, and president of the United States.Come Election Day, a lot of voters’ eyes will turn toward the people in charge of fairly operating polling places and accurately counting votes.Longtime Garfield County Clerk Mildred Alsdorf and her staff will receive unprecedented scrutiny this election. Along with an observer from the Secretary of State’s Office, a team of about 10 to 15 Democratic poll-watchers, many of them attorneys, will keep an eye on Election Day activities in the county. State Republican Party spokesman Peter DeMarco said Republicans will have poll monitors in place in Garfield County as well.Although Colorado has allowed poll-watchers in past elections, this is the first time they have been used in Garfield County. “It’s a lot different this year,” Alsdorf said. “It’s different with everybody looking over your shoulder.” The use of poll-watchers reflects both the heightened national attention on election operations after the 2000 presidential election, and past problems by Alsdorf’s office in conducting elections. Last year the Secretary of State’s office overturned Alsdorf’s election results regarding the Garfield School District 16 tax election in Parachute/Battlement Mesa, deciding that the measure had passed instead of failed.President Bush narrowly won the 2000 election, taking the pivotal state of Florida by little more than 500 votes. Legal challenges over the election there went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Bush’s victory was upheld by a 5-4 decision.Rifle attorney Ed Sands, one of the local Democratic poll-watchers, said Democrat John Kerry’s campaign is working aggressively nationwide to monitor elections.”If an election is close we hope there won’t be any more Floridas occurring in other states,” Sands said.The 500 or so votes that could swing the presidential election “could be votes here in Garfield County this year, in Colorado,” Sands said.Representatives of both parties said their goal is to make sure every eligible voter gets to vote, and that ballots are counted correctly.”We’re optimistic that everything will go fine in Garfield County, but we will be there just in case there are problems,” Sands said.”We’re trying to work with Mildred to make sure there aren’t problems.”Alsdorf said the poll-watchers, while a change for her, are welcome.”I think it’s very good. That’s fine, we’re running everything according to the statutes, and if they want to come in and observe that’s fine,” she said.Alsdorf’s office is under additional scrutiny after the difficulties she faced last year. Colorado’s Help America Vote Act program investigated that fall’s election and blamed human error for the botched District 16 election, and for Alsdorf declaring Larry Beckwith the victor over incumbent Rick Davis in a Glenwood Springs City Council race. The state found that Beckwith and Davis tied.Though conceding to Beckwith in the race, Davis still pushed the state to investigate the election in hopes of seeing reforms occur within Alsdorf’s office. He continues to be concerned about the ability of Alsdorf’s office, enough so that he recently asked the Secretary of State’s Office to assign a special, independent election observer to Garfield County for this fall’s election.Despite Alsdorf’s assurances that she has made the necessary reforms, “I don’t have the confidence to believe that that’s true,” Davis said.The state cited problems last year such as conflicting instructions in ballots and inadequate training and supervision of staff.Although Alsdorf has purchased a new vote-counting machine to address some of last year’s problems, “That alone doesn’t cut it as far as I’m concerned,” Davis said.”We really want to make sure that they run the machine correctly,” he said.Alsdorf said the machine worked fine during this summer’s primary election.Davis said he’s worried that Alsdorf has yet to take the additional training the state recommended for her and her staff. Alsdorf said she was driving to the Front Range for that training when she received word that her brother had died. She said other employees went through the training, and she is signed up for the next class.She feels her office is fully prepared for this election.”I feel that we’re following the law and doing everything that we need to do and I have very good staff working on it.”Alsdorf said she wasn’t aware that Davis had asked the Secretary of State’s Office to monitor the election in Garfield County. She said the state called her and asked if she wanted an observer, and she said yes. Many Colorado counties will have a state observer, she said.The Secretary of State’s Office did not return a call for comment.Sands was glad to hear a state observer might be in place in Garfield County.”I think it would help, frankly,” he said.Sands said he and other Democratic poll-watchers have been trying to work closely with Alsdorf, and seeking to make sure election judges at the polls are well-informed, particularly about such new things as provisional balloting and voter identification requirements.”We’ve all received training regarding the election laws,” Sands said of the poll monitors.”We’re going to be there just in case there’s a problem. We don’t necessarily expect problems.”DeMarco said Republicans are aware at the state level of the problems last year in Garfield County.”We want to make sure the process runs smoothly,” he said.Sands said that in the past, the parties only had poll runners at the polls. They would keep track of who has and hasn’t voted, and work to get others to the polls by offering rides and baby-sitting.Now, poll monitors will be on hand to step in if they think an election judge has misinterpreted or misapplied an election law. Sands said he expects most problems can be resolved on the spot. Those that aren’t will be reported by Democratic monitors to Jim Lochhead, a Glenwood Springs attorney and former director of the state Department of Natural Resources. He will forward concerns to a main Democratic office in Denver, which would file legal action if it is deemed necessary.Sands thinks Alsdorf has addressed past election problems, and believes her new vote-counting machine will help. Some of the difficulties she has experienced over the years include the machine having problems counting folded absentee ballots, and ballots in which pens instead of pencils were used. There also was an instance where ballots ran out in Carbondale and it took an hour and a half for more to be made available, he said.Sands said one thing of some concern to monitors is the fact that a number of new election judges will be used Tuesday. Alsdorf said she isn’t sure how many of her judges are new.”I was just lucky to get judges,” she said.All have been instructed and given manuals, and will be assigned to experienced judges, she said.She said at least one Democratic and one Republican judge would be at each polling place. Close to 200 judges will be used this year – more than in past elections, she said.One judge in each precinct will be assigned to deal only with provisional balloting and general problems that arise, she said.One of Alsdorf’s new election volunteers is Jeff Houpt, a Glenwood Springs attorney and Democrat.Houpt said he felt an obligation to get involved after what he saw happen in 2000 in the presidential election, and in 2003 in Garfield County.”Those were really close, and making sure the machinery works right, the voting system works properly is an important thing,” he said.He said he always used to assume the system worked.”I think in those last couple of elections we realized that might not always be true.”Houpt said he decided that, rather than relying on others to do all the work of trying to put on a fair and accurate election, it was time for him to get involved. He also wanted to observe the system firsthand.Although the last election raised some questions about Alsdorf’s office, Houpt isn’t greatly concerned about her ability to run an election. She’s been running elections for a long time, and the problems she experienced “probably could happen to anybody,” he said.Even under the best of circumstances, Houpt expects to see a lot of legal challenges this year, whether on local or national races.”The notion that the system might not work and is subject to challenge – it has been challenged, and everybody saw it happen in 2000. I bet we’re going to see a lot more of that this year.”Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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