Transparency and Accountability? Yes, Please

The Colorado legislature is scheduled to end its 2017 session one week from today, which has both the House and Senate scrambling to check off items on their “to-do lists.” One of the pressing issues that is causing much hand-wringing in the final days of the 2017 session revolves around trying to figure out how to administer two poorly-written ballot measures approved by voters last November. As Brian Eason writes for the Denver Post, this includes trying to figure out how to administer two poorly-written ballot measures approved by voters in 2016:

The dispute stems from propositions 107 and 108, ballot initiatives approved by Colorado voters in November that open partisan primary elections in the state, including a re-established presidential primary, to unaffiliated voters.

Differences over how to effectively administer the new primaries have become a broader fight that’s partly motivated by politics. The procedure the state ultimately devises could affect how many unaffiliated voters decide to participate in next year’s gubernatorial primaries and beyond…

…As the legislative session nears its close on May 10, lawmakers are rushing to introduce legislation to set up new election procedures needed to implement the two initiatives. They will also require more funding — an estimated $5 million to $7 million in presidential election years.

Some of the decisions — such as how to format the ballot — will be left to the secretary of state’s office to manage through administrative rule-making.

The legislation, which Sens. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, plan to carry, is still being ironed out.

Proposition 108, which passed with the support of 53 percent of the voters in 2016, was created to allow Unaffiliated voters in Colorado to participate in partisan primaries. In theory, this would prompt more people to vote in primary elections (including Presidential primaries, which is where Proposition 107 enters the picture). But because Prop. 108 was so vaguely-written, the legislature and the Secretary of State’s office are now scrambling to figure out how to implement these changes without creating a rash of spoiled ballots and ultimately making our elections less transparent than they are already.

If you are a registered Democrat or Republican in Colorado, you will automatically receive a ballot for your party’s primary election in June 2018. This is not particularly complicated. But if you are an Unaffiliated voter who can now vote in one of these primary elections, this becomes much more confusing. Unaffiliated voters can only cast votes on one partisan primary ballot; if a voter marks a name in both a Democratic and Republican primary, for example, then their vote is “spoiled” (a fancy word for “not counted”).

County clerks could send Unaffiliated voters separate ballots for each partisan primary, but you still need to convince these voters to return only one ballot. This would be a huge waste of time and money, of course, and the county clerks hate the idea; counties are only reimbursed financially for every ballot that is returned by Election Day — not for every ballot that is mailed to a voter. Colorado could also decide to create a super-gigantic consolidated ballot for Unaffiliated voters, which would look something like this humongous mess that is sent out in Washington state.

This is only part of the issue that is creating fresh controversy in the legislature. Some supporters of Prop. 108 are aghast at the idea that election officials would make note of which partisan primary ballots were chosen by Unaffiliated voters. It seems fairly obvious that we need to account for all of the ballots that are received on Election Day, as the Colorado Independent notes in a separate story about the controversy:

Jeffrey Roberts, who runs the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and who watchdogs open records and open government in the state, says the privacy interests are obvious but the public interest aspect for disclosure might be harder to see.

“Many people are listed as unaffiliated voters because they want to be perceived as independent and don’t want to be bugged by operatives from any political party during an election cycle, although that may be unavoidable,” he says. But, he adds, people concerned about the integrity of elections might want that information to make sure all the numbers add up after the ballots are cast.

“It could help the public ensure that votes have been counted accurately, and it would provide a more complete picture of voting in a primary election,” says Roberts.

DaVita CEO Kent Thiry

Keep in mind here that your vote is still secret no matter how it is classified, but there is nevertheless a nonsense belief that Unaffiliated voters should get to be more secretive than partisan voters. Let’s go back to Eason’s story in the Denver Post:

And it’s not just the parties that have been trying to persuade elections officials. Kent Thiry, the DaVita chief executive and a potential Republican candidate for governor, met with Williams last week to voice objections to the plan and pledged to fight provisions that would allow partisan tracking, according to the secretary of state’s office. Thiry bankrolled the open primary ballot initiatives to the tune of $2.4 million last year.

“I think the difference between what he wants and what we want is that we’re interested in elections and he’s just interested in getting elected,” said Suzanne Staiert, the deputy secretary of state. [Pols emphasis]

Thiry did not immediately respond to requests for comment left with two spokespeople. But the concern among critics is that tracking independent voters by party could deter participation by a growing block that prefers not to declare an affiliation with one party or another.

Thiry is a likely candidate for Governor in 2018 who bankrolled Propositions 107 and 108 in part because he believed he could better win a primary election — Thiry is a registered Republican — if Unaffiliated voters were allowed to cast votes. Some of this belief is driven by the nonsensical argument that Unaffiliated voters are all just a bunch of “moderates” who don’t choose a political party because they are too centrist to fit into a specific bucket.

The idea that most Unaffiliated voters are completely independent and not influenced by partisan politics is hogwash; studies have shown that most Unaffiliated voters tend to regularly support candidates from one party or another regardless of their stated affiliation. Anybody who has ever made calls or knocked on doors of Unaffiliated voters can tell you that they are often as partisan as anyone else. Sure, there are some Unaffiliated voters who really vote all over the ballot in every election — there are also plenty of Democrats and Republicans who do the same.

The choices on your ballot are yours, and yours alone, and that’s not going to change. But transparency and accountability should supersede all other interests when it comes to our elections. If we can’t track which ballots were cast in general, then there’s no way to know if your vote was even counted. If we don’t know how many people actually returned ballots in each particular primary, then we are living in a Banana Republic where we just have to assume that everything was on the level because some election official (or rich guy) told us it was cool.

2 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. VoyageurVoyageur says:

    I know that dumbing down is the essence of the Age of Trump.   But, please, when did "spoiled" become a "fancy word?"

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