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Our election technology is better than Florida’s

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Politics – December 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Given all the wrangling over how to count ballots in Florida, a matter still in litigation as this edition went to press, it’s easy to wonder whether that could happen here.

But none of the counties I asked uses punch cards, so dimpled ballots and hanging chad shouldn’t be an issue in Central Colorado.

In our region, two systems are in use, and they’re pretty similar.

In one, employed in Lake, Saguache, and Alamosa counties, voters fill in circles with pencils to make their selections.

In the other, used in Chaffee, Custer, Gunnison, and Park counties, voters make lines through broken arrows to indicate their choice.

In both cases, the ballots are scanned by a machine. The difference comes in how many machines are used and where they are.

Lake, Saguache, Alamosa, and Gunnison just use one central scanning machine at the clerk’s office. So if a Colorado voter there emulated some Florida voters and voted for both Gore and Buchanan, that race on that ballot would not be counted.

In Chaffee, Park, and Custer, there’s a scanner at each polling place. The voter slides it in, and if the machine accepts it, that’s that. If the voter cast two votes for president, then the machine would reject it, and the voter would get a choice — to either cast a new ballot, or let his vote be voided for that race.

This appears to be the best way to avoid anything like the Florida problem — people would know right away if they marked their ballots in error, and would have the opportunity to redo it immediately, rather than have the vote voided due to errors.

If this area were more populated, that might lead to delays at the polling place, but in 22 years of voting at precinct 2 in Salida, I’ve never had to wait in any line, let alone a long one. (Of course, it’s just across the street, and on election day, I just look out the window until I don’t see many parked cars, and walk over and vote then.)

All Colorado counties have bipartisan election boards that examine questionable ballots. (Say, the voter didn’t fill in the circle enough for the machine to read it; in that case the boards will tally it by hand if the voter’s intentions are clear).

There are some spoiled ballots in most general elections, but no clerk I talked to could remember more than a dozen or so in any recent election, let alone the 19,000 accumulated by just one county in Florida.

Of course, that may be because none of the counties I contacted actually had 19,000 residents, let alone 19,000 voters. But all of the clerks reported that spoiled ballots here were rare.

So, even if we don’t always like the outcome of elections hereabouts, they do seem to be conducted as fairly and accurately as possible, especially in the counties that have a scanner in each precinct.

The scanners cost from $3,500 used to about $5,000 new, and they get used only once or twice a year. But the county clerks said their commissioners were willing to spend the money, despite all of the other demands on county government.

And that strikes me as pretty sound reasoning on their part. For if democracy is worth sending soldiers to die for, it’s certainly worth the expense of accurate and reliable machinery for conducting elections.

— Ed Quillen