New legislation aims to clear up ballot problems
By Sheila Reiner
A bill to allow for public inspection of voted ballots is expected to be introduced in the Colorado Legislature next week, and I am encouraged by it.
When I was first asked about the issue of making ballots open to public inspection, I did not see a necessity for it. Everything except the original ballots themselves were already considered open records. I thought there was enough transparency available and it posed a danger to the integrity of election records to allow inspection.
After speaking with legislators, press representatives and the public, I realized there are more individuals than I thought who would like to have the option to inspect voted ballots. I attended meetings, working with numerous voting activists and groups, the Colorado County Clerk’s Association, Sen. Rollie Heath and Rep. Lois Court. The bill to be introduced is a compromise to provide even greater transparency, with protection for the integrity of the election records.
Colorado’s county clerks have called attention to a problem in Colorado, and we have brought everyone to the table to work toward a solution. We are pleased that legislators from both parties are doing that. Our focus is on solving this issue. Now is the time to work together to ensure voters have the greatest possible privacy and the public has the highest level of transparency.
I am encouraged that this will clear up the legal issues we have been grappling with over the past few years in numerous Colorado counties.
This bill provides some framework to accommodate the request for inspection of ballots in a safe and controlled manner. It provides for an acceptable timeframe, such as stating ballots shouldn’t be under inspection while they are still being processed or until the election records are no longer needed for any recount, audit or to answer a contest of the results.
Ballot anonymity shouldn’t be a problem, except for a few small groups. For example, protections will be needed to ensure original military ballots (submitted by electronic means), ID and signature-deficient ballots cured after Election Day, provisional ballots and small groups resulting from precinct reporting are kept confidential.
The goal of making the majority of ballots open to public inspection will just take a few sensible guidelines.
The Colorado Constitution, coupled with a number of Colorado statutes, protects voter and citizen privacy in a myriad of areas within the Clerk and Recorder’s offices. In the Recording, Motor Vehicle and Elections divisions, there are some exemptions from the open records law. For instance, driver’s license numbers, original signatures, Social Security numbers, plate numbers, certain recorded documents and, in a few instances, even people’s home addresses are not open for public inspection.
It is the clerk’s job to handle sensitive material while complying with confidentiality laws, all while allowing inspection of the records that are open to the public. Balancing the protection of confidential information with public access is something that is required in the normal course of business for the office.
It is my hope that all legislators will support this bill, acting quickly to clarify where that line between causing public harm and providing access to open records is concerning election records. No matter the outcome of the upcoming legislative and judicial decisions, my team of deputy clerks and I will proceed with caution, taking care with information submitted to and processed by our office. That includes continuing to ensure the secrecy of every vote.
There are numerous processes that need the public and interested parties to take part in the conduct of elections. Our office not only welcomes public participation, but needs citizens’ help. People can become an election judge, testing or auditing board member, duplication and resolution board member, canvasser or become a watcher for a political party, candidate or issue committee.
Sheila Reiner is the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder.