Coloradoans Waited in Dark to Vote, With Democrats Prevailing

November 9, 2006

Hundreds if not thousands of people in the Denver area waited to vote Tuesday night after polls were officially closed, a miserable end to a day fraught with balky computers and unfamiliar new voting machines handling the longest statewide ballot in decades.

The late voting raised the possibility that the outcome of many races were not be known for hours. Denver County, a Democratic stronghold with more than 350,000 registered voters, holds major sway over any statewide race.

Whatever glitches there were did not stop the Democrats. Democrat Bill Ritter trounced Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez in the race for governor.

Ritter’s victory will likely mean a new commisisoner for the state, according to Kelly Campbell, regional manager for the Rocky Mountain region for the Property Casualty Association of America (PCI) based in Denver.

Voting problems arose when the long ballot and new machines caused delays. Kevin Caffrey, a 43-year-old school teacher from Denver and a registered Republican, was furious after he was forced to stand in line for more than an hour.

“Every individual who put me in line, I’m voting against them. I’ve been waiting in line like an animal. This is a nightmare,” he said.

Lines stretched outside, down streets and around corners at some Denver-area polling places on a sunny and unusually warm day. Democratic Party spokesman Brian Mason said some voters were turned away and told to come back. Others were given provisional ballots, which can be verified later and then counted, but those ran out, he said.

“This is positively ridiculous,” said Jack McCroskey, clutching his cane while waiting at the Washington Park polling place in southeast Denver. “At 82, I don’t deserve to have to stand out here.”

Democrats unsuccessfully sought a court order to keep Denver County polls open two extra hours, until 9 p.m. Long lines were also reported in Douglas County, a GOP stronghold in the suburbs south of Denver where Clerk Carole Murray said hundreds of people were in line at 8 p.m.

“It’s just a big turnout and a long ballot,” she said.

Sean Kelly, 44, said he left without voting after nearly three hours at Manual High School in Denver. First, election officials’ laptop computers froze and they couldn’t retrieve his information. Then, he and other voters waited in vain for provisional ballots.

“I can’t believe I’m in the United States of America,” said Kelly, who said he has voted every year of his 15 years in Colorado.

At Denver’s Botanic Gardens, where the line stretched on seemingly forever, the Gay Men’s Chorus entertained voters waiting it out. Bill Ehlert, 63, sat on a chair eating pizza while he waited. At nightfall, he guessed he had been in line for two hours.

“At first, I thought it was dreadful, but with the music and people passing out cookies and pizza and bottled water, it’s like a party,” he said.

Attorney Drew Unthank waited in line for three hours Tuesday morning, then went to work and came back at 7 p.m., just as election judges were closing the wrought iron gates leading to the polls inside the gardens.

“I immediately went up to the gate and asked for a provisional ballot,” said Unthank, who said he was the last person in line. “They wouldn’t give me one at first but there were three other people there and we raised enough of a ruckus that finally gave us one and let us in the gates.”

State GOP spokesman Bryant Adams called Democrats’ request for longer hours “outrageous” and unnecessary.

It was the first general election since Denver switched to 55 regional voting centers from scores of precincts. Elections officials in the state’s biggest city were already planning to hand-copy as many as 30,000 absentee ballots because of a printing mistake.

State officials predicted a relatively high 60 percent statewide turnout for the midterm election, or some 1.8 million voters out of nearly 3 million. Secretary of State spokeswoman Lisa Doran said long lines were reported around the state, from Denver to Steamboat Springs, which she blamed on the long ballot – with 14 proposals – and new voting machines.

“Despite the training, some of the election judges are intimidated by the machines,” she said.

Poll watchers complained that computer problems prevented them from checking voter registration for hours. They also said provisional ballots were either not offered or couldn’t be used because voter addresses couldn’t be checked.

Mark Grueskin, representing Colorado Common Cause, said telling voters to go to another vote center was not a viable solution

“The problem is, absent carrying a laptop with wireless capacity, there’s no way for voters to know which vote centers have long lines and which do not,” he said.

Denver Election Commission spokesman Alton Dillard blamed the slow-going on heavy traffic on a laptop computer system used to verify voter registration. He said some officials had to call the central election office for the information.

Dillard, who had earlier blamed power outages, said voting machines were not affected.

Debbie Rudy, elections supervisor for Montrose County, said a large number of voters were forced to wait up to three hours to vote at two polling centers because of problems with electronic voting machines. She said voters who didn’t want to wait were given paper ballots that will be counted later.

The voting machines, provided by Hart InterCivic, had to be reset after the votes were backed up on memory disks and no votes were lost, Rudy said.

“It may be operator error on our part,” she said. “We’re still on a learning curve. It was hard for us to go from punch cards to something new.”

At least two Hispanic voters in Weld County, northwest of Denver, said they received calls from people telling them they might get arrested if they voted, according to Marcella Salazar, a spokeswoman for Democrat Angie Paccione, who was challenging GOP Rep. Marilyn Musgrave.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., recorded a phone message Tuesday to try to counteract any such calls after hearing about the complaints. Adams, the GOP spokesman, said the Democrats’ allegations sounded like “complete hogwash” and a tactic to put Republicans in a bad light.

In Phillips County, with 2,900 registered voters, officials say a broken hard drive in the computer scanner that tallies absentee ballots crashed at about 7 p.m. Nearly 1,000 ballots won’t be counted until Wednesday, County Clerk Maedeen “Beth” Cumming said.

The Phillips County seat is Holyoke, located about 155 miles northeast of Denver.

In other election results, Amendment 41, the “ethics in government” amendment aimed at banning public officials and government employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50 was approved by approximately 60 percent of voters, according to Campbell.

The amendment had four major parts and will:
1. Ban lobbyists from giving gifts or meals to public officials, government employees, and their immediate family members.
2. Prohibit public officials and government employees from accepting any amount of money or any gift worth more than $50.
3. Prohibit officeholders and state legislators from lobbying certain elected state officials for pay for two years after leaving office.
4. Create a new ethics commission to hear state and local complaints, assess penalties, and issue advisory opinions. Each commissioner would have individual
subpoena power.

PCI’s Campbell said the amendment is the strictest measure of its type in the country, and could have a “chilling impact” on dialogue on key issues such as medical mandates, workers’ comp reforms and credit scoring in the state.

While there is no deadline for implementation of the bill, the governor is expected to sign it in mid-December or January.

Patricia-Anne Tom contributed to this report.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.