Calhoun: Wake-Up Call


Throw the bums out.

The grumbling started even before Denver City Council convened its December 2 hearing on the election debacle. Snowflakes were falling; where were those snow plows? Thanks to the Parade of Lights, which had kicked off the night before, meters were bagged and streets blocked off all around the City and County Building: Bah humbug. And at the single security checkpoint, the line seemed to be moving slower than the line outside a Denver vote center on November 7 -- if such a thing were possible.

Council chambers on the fourth floor were packed, with the overflow spilling into a nearby jury room, where councilmembers took turns collecting the excess complaints. And there were more than enough to go around. Sitting in front of his grumpy constituents, facing the councilmembers, was John Hickenlooper -- who, as Denver's mayor, is not officially in charge of the independent Denver Election Commission, but wound up getting a black eye anyway -- and Kathy Archuleta, the mayoral aide who had offered the city's technological help to the DEC and been rebuffed. Beside and behind them were members of the investigative panel Hickenlooper had quickly appointed to analyze what had gone wrong, and they were uncovering one ignored warning after another. State senator Ken Gordon was there, too; he'd been in limbo for days, waiting to see the results of his run for secretary of state as the Denver count went on. And on. Even without the 18,000 or 20,000 would-be voters that experts estimate gave up without casting a ballot, the results weren't final for nine days. Auditor Dennis Gallagher was seated close by; he'd warned of a coming election "tsunami" this past summer and had released a critical audit of the DEC in October -- but he'd also gotten stuck signing the city's contract with the much-reviled Sequoia Election Systems, which was responsible for more than its fair share of blunders.

And there to the side of the chamber, looking bruised, were the two elected Denver Election commissioners -- Sandy Adams and Susan Rogers -- and Denver Election Executive Director John Gaydeski. Wayne Vaden, who, as the city's appointed clerk and recorder, completed the three-member DEC, was nowhere in sight -- but then, he'd already taken a bullet, resigning effective December 31.

For two hours, citizens lined up to tell their tales. Applause occasionally punctuated their statements -- particularly whenever anyone mentioned the late, lamented voting precincts that had been ditched in favor of vote centers. More commonly, their testimony elicited groans and winces, especially when a few election judges said they had yet to be paid. As it turned out, most of the people signed up to speak had worked as election judges -- some for years, but never the way they'd worked on November 7. "I was there nineteen hours," said one woman. No breaks, no lunch, no dinner.

The training had been "a farce," said another. "We felt like we were completely abandoned. When we called for help, no one answered the phone." Problems with the primary should have served as warning, insisted a third. But three months later, the poll book was still faulty, there were not enough provisional ballots, and "our complaints fell on deaf ears." Not on this day, though.

"I have worked the elections for thirty years," one man wrote in a note to me. "The Election Commission got caught with its pants down."

It wasn't a pretty sight then, and the truth just gets uglier.

Although former commissioner Jan Tyler has launched a one-woman campaign to maintain the current DEC structure -- and plans to walk the entire city, wearing out as many pairs of Jimmy Choos as it might take -- and Duncan and Adams still support the concept of a three-person commission (if not the current commission's insupportable performance), change looks inevitable. And damn good.

Doug Anderson, now a Lakewood city councilman, was the first Libertarian bartender (at Shotgun Willie's!) ever elected to the Denver Election Commission. From the inside, he realized that combining the DEC with the clerk's office would increase efficiency and ultimately save money. "You don't need someone there all year long to put pencils in the polling box," he says, "but you need someone there who'll know there will be problems if you don't have pencils in the box."

Get the lead out.

This past Monday night, the crowd was considerably smaller when Denver City Council convened its usual meeting in the same room and debated a proposal that would pave the way for a special election on January 30. An election that would let Denver voters decide whether they want to do away with the Denver Election Commission for good and simply elect a clerk and recorder to handle elections (and myriad other tasks), as 62 other counties in Colorado do. Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez, who'd once served as the city's appointed clerk, was ready to push for that change back in August 2005. "I probably should have tried to be more persuasive," she says now. At the time, though, she counted only a slim majority of councilmembers on her side; this time, the vote was 10-3 to at least take the proposal to a second vote next Tuesday, "but holding them together could be tough," she acknowledges.

Maybe not after the public hearing that precedes that vote, though not if the testimony proves as wrenching as it was a few weeks ago. "I'm heartbroken, just heartbroken," Rodriguez says. "It's just a mess."

The polls had barely closed when Gallagher started calling for a May election on a similar elected-clerk proposal, but if council wants to take it to voters even sooner, that's fine with him. His office thinks the estimate of $600,000 for a special election could be high; in an attempt to salvage its position, the auditor suggests, Sequoia might cut back on the price considerably. But even at $600,000, a mail-in election this January would be a bargain compared to the $1.4 million in overruns that the DEC rang up in November on a disaster that got this city the kind of publicity you can't buy (and don't want to).

Last week, Hickenlooper's investigatory panel also endorsed the switch to an elected clerk, although the majority of its members think January 30 is too soon for a vote. Scott Doyle, the Larimer County clerk and recorder whose implementation of vote centers there has been praised across the country, thinks it could be impossible. Doyle's name has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Vaden -- a rumor that got legs Monday night when council amended the proposal, barely, so that someone running for clerk and recorder would not have to live in Denver County until July 2007. But at that same meeting, Hickenlooper's new chief of staff, Kelly Brough, promised that council would have a say in whoever is appointed to the slot -- for however long it might last.

Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, another former appointed clerk, supports the move to an elected clerk -- although she, too, would like to put it to voters in May. "I'm not in a rush to get rid of these commissioners," she says. "The bigger issue is to make sure we have a smoother election."

It's hard to imagine it getting any bumpier.

On December 6, four days after the disastrous public hearing, Gaydeski turned in his resignation -- but the two remaining election commissioners have insisted he stay on and see Denver through its May 1 election cycle. That's when residents will vote for mayor (so far, no one has stepped up to challenge Hickenlooper), along with all thirteen councilmembers and the auditor. And the city's clerk and recorder, if the majority of the councilmembers stick to their guns and let voters decide the issue on January 30.

Then Denver would have an elected official in place in time to run the November 2007 elections and be well-tested by the November 2008 elections. In the meantime, that clerk could consult with Doyle and the rest of Hickenlooper's panel, as well as election commissioners past and councilmembers present, to determine if it's possible to return to precincts and whether a Sequoia machine can tally results in less than a week. Countable, and accountable.

But first, what remains of the DEC will have to figure out some way to conduct a single election that isn't flawed from the outset, marred by the sort of typos and postage blunders that made headlines earlier this year -- snafus that now seem almost sweetly stupid when compared with the enormous errors of November 7. For starters, they should recruit a crew of editors to proofread the ballot. That way, when a mistake slips through, the media will have only itself to blame -- which would be a refreshing change. If Denver City Council approves this proposal, the city could soon have an election head who's accountable -- and a vote that's countable.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun