Open-records request threatens voter privacy
By Sheila Reiner
An Aspen woman, Marilyn Marks has filed a large open-records request with our office. We made available for inspection about one third of the documents she requested — as many as we have and could legally release, without compromising voter secrecy.
Here in Mesa County, we pride ourselves on being leaders in security, accuracy and transparency. These are our top priorities when it comes to elections. We have been more than willing to make available as many of the records requested as possible. We have invited Marks not only to inspect the records, but also to sit down and talk with us about our processes so that we can answer any questions she may have.
The largest part of her request contains electronic images of votes cast on iVotronics (touch-screen voting machines) from our 2010 general election. We are unable to fulfill this part of her request. We strongly support the right of every voter to have a secret ballot. Military voters, outlying communities and precincts that have small amounts of one party affiliation or the other are at particular risk for their votes being publicly known.
State law requires all county clerks to sort the ballots by precinct and method of voting (mail ballots, early ballots, Election Day and provisional ballots), ultimately placing many of them into small groups. When compared with registered-voter logs, which are made public, it’s possible individual voters in those small groups could be identified. How you vote should be your business.
Election officials do release voting-participation reports that are clearly public record. But, until now, we have been entrusted to keep the actual ballots and ballot images in the same condition as when the votes were cast.
Tabulating by precinct and method has advantages. We are able to work with our election judges, audit and canvassing boards to verify smaller batches of votes. Each precinct and voting-method count provides for a greater level of accuracy. We audit and canvass by using the numbers of voters who check in to cast a ballot with the number of ballots cast and the number of signed voter oaths within each precinct and voting method. When we publicly report the results, we merge groups together to protect voter privacy.
Marks argues that the public should have full access to all ballots and election records. The facts are that the public already has involvement by design. Your neighbors and friends volunteer to be election judges each election. Furthermore, the local political parties have representation in the election by referring election judges, testing boards, canvassing board members for pre- and post-audit involvement. Local election watchers are also part of the process and are welcomed.
If any Mesa County citizen desires a tour and explanation of the safeguards and procedures that we follow, I invite you to contact me and have a tour during this fall’s election.
I believe that, as the chief election official of Mesa County, I have a duty to safeguard election records in the event of a recount, contest, court-ordered audit or investigation. We need to preserve the records and protect them to uphold our democratic process. Ultimately, that may require legislation to either exempt ballots from being open records or change the requirement on how votes are counted. Those who support this effort should contact their state legislators and the Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Sheila Reiner is the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder.