Updated: Mesa County scrambles to correct botched Palisade pot question on ballot | PostIndependent.com

Updated: Mesa County scrambles to correct botched Palisade pot question on ballot

Caitlin Row
crow@gjfreepress.com
Mesa County’s Clerk & Recorder Office, which manages Palisade’s ballots and election process, recently reported that Palisade voters said "no" to allowing recreational business within town limits.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

MESA COUNTY CLERK & RECORDER’S PLAN TO RECTIFY BALLOT ISSUE

We have reissued all of the ballots that were affected within Palisade town limits that lacked the questions and resent those voters new ballots. The old ballots, that were the incorrect style, have been voided in our system.

In the case that someone has already returned the wrong ballot style, we will catch that when we open the envelopes, set them aside and send the voter a supplemental ballot with only the two Palisade questions on it.

Voters outside the town of Palisade, whose ballots incorrectly contained questions 2A and 2B, will either receive new ballots (in which case the incorrect ballots will be voided in our system) or will have their incorrect ballots set aside to make sure everything on the ballot is counted, except questions 2A and 2B.

SOURCE: Donna Ross, Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Office’s chief deputy

With Election Day just days away, Palisade is dealing with a botched ballot and questions swirling about whether the integrity of residents’ votes has been compromised.

At the heart of the matter are Referred Measures 2A and 2B, which ask Palisade residents to decide whether recreational marijuana should be allowed within town limits and how to tax it. Mesa County’s Clerk & Recorder Office, which manages Palisade’s ballots and election process, confirmed that 107 ballots were mailed without questions 2A and 2B.

In addition, some people living outside Palisade incorrectly received ballots containing both questions.

The problem was discovered within the past two weeks.

Since the adoption of Amendment 64 — which allows marijuana to be sold, taxed and used legally by people 21 and older throughout Colorado — recreational marijuana businesses have been blocked from Grand Junction, Fruita, Palisade and unincorporated Mesa County. Since 2011, medical marijuana businesses were blocked from the Grand Valley as well, except for Colorado Alternative Health Care in Palisade.

De Beque OK’d recreational marijuana in April, and now has a ballot question regarding taxation.

“The town is currently processing two submitted applications,” De Beque’s town manager Guy Patterson said by email. “One for a retail dispensary and the other for a limited grow with a retail dispensary. To date, no licenses have been issued.”

NOW WHAT?

Following the discovery of Palisade’s ballot inaccuracies, Mesa County Clerk & Recorder chief deputy Donna Ross said “a ballot assembly issue involving the insertion process for ballots in Precinct 17” caused the error. She also noted by email that a representative from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office visited Mesa County’s Elections Office on Oct. 23.

A plan was put into place on Oct. 17 to rectify ballot errors as well, Ross confirmed, which will include reissuing all mistaken ballots mailed within town limits, voiding incorrect ballots already received and manually sorting through in-town and out-of-town ballots impacted by 2A and 2B questions.

“He reviewed and approved our processes,” Ross said of the secretary of state representative.

“We are confident that anyone who is eligible to vote on the questions will have an opportunity to do so,” she added.

Mesa County used Runbeck Election Services in Tempe, Ariz., to print its ballots, and a refund by Runbeck to cover costs associated with the ballot misprint is expected. Colorado’s Adams County also experienced a similar error with its ballots.

“We intend to use them again,” Ross confirmed. “They have provided us with six election print jobs that were flawless prior to this incident.”

IT’S ‘A BIG MESS’

Even so, Jesse and Desa Loughman, owners of Colorado Alternative Health Care, question whether Mesa County’s Clerk & Recorder Office is doing all it can to correct the botched ballot.

“We want to know why it happened,” Jesse Loughman said by phone. “We were told it was a printer error … Even to this point, it seems the election office doesn’t take this as a very big deal. It’s hard to have confidence in the election now.”

Jesse Loughman also cited continued confusion in the community regarding how new ballots would be processed and how errors were being tracked.

Communication has “absolutely” been an issue, he said.

Pending the passing of 2A and 2B, the Loughmans planned to expand their 4-year-old business with a separate recreational-type component; they currently provide medical marijuana only to card-carrying patients. In an interview with the Grand Junction Free Press last month, Jesse Loughman confirmed that Palisade currently receives $60,000-$80,000 annually from his business, including sales tax and a $5 fee per sale. Expanding into recreational marijuana would likely create a tax boom for the sleepy farming community.

“It’s really just a big mess, and it’s something that should never have happened to begin with,” Jesse Loughman said of the ballot issue. “I’m upset about it, obviously, and a lot of people in Palisade are really upset.”

OUTSIDE OVERSIGHT?

The Loughmans hope Secretary of State Scott Gessler will oversee Palisade’s election to ensure integrity in the process going forward.

According to Jessica Peck, a Denver attorney specializing in Colorado’s marijuana industry and elections, a request was sent to the Secretary of State’s Office on Oct. 23. She, along with the Clerk and Recorder Office, received a letter from Gessler’s office on Oct. 24.

In Gessler’s letter, he wrote that he shared Peck’s concerns regarding ballot confusion and potential for disenfranchised voters.

“In Clerk [Sheila] Reiner’s haste to notify the public, some of the details changed, drawing more questions about what was really happening,” he said. “ … Based upon our analysis, the Clerk’s response was adequate, although possibly not as accurate as her constituents would like. While the outreach effort could have been more aggressive and careful, I appreciate the dedicated involvement from Palisade residents to educate and encourage greater participation.”

Even so, Mesa County’s Clerk and Recorder Office maintains it did the right thing regarding early communication with press and the public, despite confusion it may have created.

“The Clerk’s Office makes a point of responding to reporters as quickly as possible, and we want to be as responsible to the media and the public as we can,” Ross said in an email.

It was also stated in Gessler’s letter that an election observer’s availability will be “expanded” in regards to Palisade’s upcoming election.

EVERY VOTE COUNTS

Still, Peck is concerned that there’s not enough time between now and Election Day to remedy the ballot error.

And with so few voters in Palisade, a mere 100 votes could in fact change the outcome of the election, she confirmed.

“When you look at numbers — it’s too small of a margin for error,” she said. “We take this very seriously. It’s more than marijuana.”

Case in point, when De Beque hosted its recreational-marijuana question on its ballot last spring, the community of 503 people was split on the issue. Patterson confirmed in a September interview with the Free Press that allowing recreational marijuana sales within town limits won by only four votes.

A Palisade ballot question in 2011 — asking its residents if medical marijuana dispensaries should be prohibited within town limits — was shot down, though the vote was close. Lindsey Chitwood, Palisade’s town clerk, confirmed that 545 voters said “no,” while 347 voters were in favor.

“We are not seeing a clerk who’s taking this seriously,” Peck said of the Palisade glitch.

Rich Sales, Palisade’s administrator, is confident the results will be accurate however: “It is the duty of the county clerk to certify the election results. We will depend on her to do that and trust that she and the Secretary of State’s Office will believe the process valid if she does.”

He said by email that all key players, including Mesa County’s Clerk & Recorder Office, realized the gravity of the situation.

“As you can imagine, we were very concerned about this when we first heard that some citizens had the wrong ballots,” Sales said. “While not everyone takes advantage of their right to vote, giving the opportunity and ability to the entire community equitably is critical.”


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