Voting locations — a big problem waiting to happen?

Mon, Aug 13, 2012


Given the national Republican penchant for creating voting environments that seem to disadvantage Democrats, it was no surprise that local Dems looked askance at County Clerk Wayne Williams’ choice of polling places for the November election.

As presented to the county commissioners last week, the list seemed opaque and confusing. It was formatted as an Excel worksheet, with no fewer than 17 columns and 112 rows, all fetchingly highlighted in subtle pastel colors (lavender and peach appear to be particular favorites at the clerk’s office).

In all, 112 polling places were listed, without addresses. There were no graphics displayed at the meeting, no map that would enable potential critics to highlight problems, and no way to compare 2008 polling places with those proposed for 2012.

Four years ago, there were 187 polling places in El Paso County. After that election, precincts were re-configured and renumbered, cutting the number of precincts by half. There were lines after voting had closed in 2010, but few problems.

This year may be different.

Despite increasing the number of polling places from 102 to 112, the county projects that many polling places will see election day numbers increase dramatically. At the Zalman Center in southeastern El Paso County, projected turnout will go from 1,279 to 3,806. Another southeastern site, Victory World Outreach, is projected to host 4,030 voters, up from 2,044, while turnout at the Satellite Hotel building could increase from 109 to 729.

Will the polls be so jammed that voters will walk away, rather than wait? Are low income-areas being targeted in order to reduce the Democratic vote?

Almost certainly not, since voting locations throughout the city may experience increases just as dramatic.

An e-mail with the list attached had been sent a week before to Democratic and Republican officials, certain elected officials and one or two other organizations. No media were on the list.

The agenda item: “Resolution to approve polling place changes for the 2012 election.”

The Dems came prepared for battle. They had alerted the Southern Colorado Ministerial Union, an organization of African American pastors. A half-dozen pastors were in the audience, and several voiced their concerns.

“We have deep concern over the proposed list of polling places and the exclusion of churches ministered by African Americans,” said Rev. James McMearn, who has led the New Jerusalem Baptist church in Fountain for 30 years. “There are 53 churches pastored by African-Americans in El Paso County, and not one was contacted by the County Clerk. We had the same concerns in 2008, but four years later we’re still not part of the process.”

Actually, one church with a black pastor was contacted, yet county election manager Liz Olson was conciliatory.

“It was a very color-blind process,” she said. “(The exclusion) wasn’t intentional.”

The ministers were mollified, but not satisfied.

“You have 112 polling places on the list,” said McMearn. “Can’t you add three more?”

Olson told the commissioners that the law requires that polling places be approved 90 days before the election, creating an absolute deadline of Aug. 8. Apparently satisfied with the list as presented, the commissioners voted unanimously to accept it.

Before the vote, commission chair Amy Lathen gave the pastors an earful.

“It’s very offensive to me to say that anyone is excluded (from voting) on the basis of race,” she said. “No one is excluded from voting — it’s a constitutional right. We can’t decide polling places based on the pastor’s race — we don’t even have that information.”

And then Lathen went all Margaret Thatcher on the impudent lib’ruls.

“We can’t go to everyone’s front door with a hand-printed invitation to vote,” she said tartly.

After the meeting, former Commissioner Duncan Bremer had a suggestion.

“They should have had a no-decision information hearing two weeks ago,” he said. “Then people could have voiced concerns, and if changes were necessary they could have made them.”

But given the apparent lack of urgency at the clerk’s office, no such meeting could have been scheduled.

“We were working on (the list) up to three days before the (commissioners) meeting,” Olson said.

And, she added, the list is just fine as is.

Asked to compare it with 2008, Olson refused.

“You can’t compare it,” she said. “It’s a completely different process.”

That it is — and if wintry weather, high turnout and fewer polling places leave thousands of voters shivering in the cold, it may be very different indeed.


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