Jerry Kopel


Denver's Election Commission is an independent agency. It says so in the Denver charter. A major reason for "independence" is to avoid abuses in electioneering and vote counting.

But only two of the three commissioners are elected. The third is always the city clerk and recorder who is appointed to that position by the mayor. The mayor also sets the commission budget with assistance from city council. If you don't control your budget, there isn't much independence.

The commission came into news again recently with the termination of Arlys Ward, director of the commission office, following a monetary "settlement".

Ann Carnahan of the Rocky Mountain News quoted Mrs. Ward as stating "she is being punished for daring to speak out ... about the sorry state of the city's aging voting machines." Her comments on the eve of the November, 1996 election, writes Carnahan, convinced city council to allocate $5.3 million over 15 years to lease/purchase 970 AVC electronic voting machines from Sequoia, Inc.

Some items are not in dispute. Mayor Webb didn't want to earmark the money now. The previous election commission, of which I was a member for six months, supported the purchase. The present election commissioners also wanted the machines, which is why they put it in their budget.

You might have kept Denver's voting machines, half-ton iron monsters from the 1950's, in operation a little while longer by continuing to cannibalize parts. During my service, the previous commission decided not to buy castoff machines of the same ilk from a neighboring state south of Colorado...that it was time to move into the 20th (not even the 21st) century.

The electronic machines in question are presently in use in Arapahoe County. They work. Denver has used them, by lease, for early voting. The previous commission had those who participated in early voting in 1995 fill out questionnaires to find out if they liked the electronic machines better than the ones regularly used for more than 40 years. The voters overwhelmingly opted for the electronic machines.

In 1982, a Denver election commission consisting of Sylvia Dennis, Donald Nicholson and Clerk and Recorder Fernando Serafini tried out another type of machine with punch cards as an alternative to the iron monsters. It was a disaster. In the Sept. 14th primary that year, some Denver results were delayed 10 days.

Despite that, the election commissioners didn't change course and they continued to have Mayor Bill McNichols' backing for the $500,000 voting system. After a fight with city council over additional moneys needed for the general election, the two elected election commissioners resigned and were promptly reappointed by McNichols.

Denver's final vote in many races in the 1982 general election was not known for several days after the election was over. About 300 voters in one of my House precincts were given ballots from another House district.

Other elected Denver House members had similar horror stories including then-Rep. Wilma Webb who told of waits up to three hours by voters in her House district. In a press release castigating the November election procedures, she said "We ran out of ballots, pens, ballot boxes, and most of all, out of patience."

At 10 p.m. on general election night only three of 398 Denver precincts had been tabulated. Precinct workers stood outside in the subfeezing night waiting at Byers Junior High School (turned into election headquarters) to hand in their extremely heavy ballot boxes.

David Fogel, Denver Democratic chairman told the Denver Post "We're having people carrying 80-100 pound boxes, dragging them along the ground out in the cold and nobody to help them. I've had Democrats and Republicans tell me they'll never do it again. The system stinks."

When Mayor McNichols showed up at Byers, he was booed and hissed. Fogel told reporters the mayor was quite shaken by the incident.

After the 1982 general election, McNichols repudiated his earlier support stating he "wouldn't recommend it be used in a high school election." Many pundits blame the mayor's defeat in 1983 to failure to clear streets after a bad Dec. 1982 snowstorm. But I'm positive the mayor was defeated because he lost the support of precinct workers who had to deal with the 1982 machines. Failure to clear streets just confirmed that a new administration was needed.

There is always trepidation in making a switch, especially by those who experienced the 1982 disaster. But the AVC electronic machines have been tried in Colorado and do work. They take less space and weigh about 260 pounds, which means there is greater flexibility in where they can be put.

There is no transfer by humans of numbers from the back of machines to a piece of paper, which means less possibility of error. They are less subject to sabotage and they are "user friendly" for disabled voters.

Old ways are not always the best ways. Air controllers are still using computer-tubes that are from the early dawn of computers and we know the system is subject to massive breakdowns. Fortunately, the tubes are still being manufactured in Poland. But for 20 years, no company has manufactured replacement parts for the voting machines used in Denver.

In the November 1996 Rocky Mountain News story, Mrs. Ward is quoted as stating that in each election, the machines show greater signs of malfunctioning. "There could be a problem in an election where fifty or so votes separates the winner from the loser... a lever may stick on a candidate's name and votes may not be recorded."

I'm not going to get in the middle of any dispute between the present commissioners and Mrs. Ward. During my six month tenure (January to July 1995), I found her to be efficient, personable, and dependable. I don't know what has transpired the past two years and I frankly don't want to know.

But if her comments to City Council resulted in the use of the new machines, she will have earned an honored place in Denver history.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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