[Image courtesy of saguache.org]
Lost in the national news about Congressional hearings and high-profile fights in Maine, Ohio and South Carolina is a running controversy in one Colorado county that raises fascinating questions about our system of elections and who’s ultimately in charge.
In November 2010, the County’s general election featured, in addition to federal and statewide races, a re-election contest for the County Clerk and Recorder position held by Melinda Myers. On Election Night, results appeared to show that Myers, a Democrat, had had lost to her GOP challenger Carla Gomez. A few days later, though, Myers’ office announced that her office had discovered an error and conducted a retabulation that resulted in her winning re-election.
That decision – and the change in result – set off a firestorm in Saguache and across Colorado. New Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) sought to order Myers to allow a public review of the ballots but Myers – with the support of the state clerks’ association – said she would not cooperate without a court order, citing the secrecy of the ballot.
Gessler got his court order in mid-August, and in late August a review of the ballots took place at the county courthouse. Even that review wasn’t without controversy; many volunteers threatened to walk out if they were not allowed to look at other races on the ballot and re-tally vote totals by precinct.
In the end, Myers’ victory was upheld. However, the fight is not over – Myers and some of her colleagues were criticized for their efforts to shield ballots, and she faces the prospect of a recall at the hands of Saguache voters. [UPDATE 1030am Eastern: Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen flags a piece describing how two other county election offices are seeking to block access to ballots in reaction to the Saguache ruling.]
This case raises interesting questions about who’s in charge of elections. I’ve written elsewhere about the struggle between different levels of government for control of elections; here, however, the struggle seems to be more between citizens and the election office itself.
In some ways, Saguache’s struggle reminds us that citizens – usually, but not always, voters – are a key constituency in the management of elections. We often get so caught up in the conflicts between candidates, parties and levels of government that it can be easy to overlook the voter. Concepts like secrecy of the ballot are vital to the proper functioning of elections, but when voters perceive – as they apparently did in Saguache – that such concepts are being used to frustrate rather than serve voters, an election official and the entire election community can find themselves called into question.
To be sure, one legacy of the disputed 2000 Presidential election is that more people are aware of election administration. And hopefully, not every election controversy will result in the kind of legal and political skirmishing we are seeing in Saguache County.
Still, I think the Saguache case teaches an important lesson: the same voters you are happy to see when casting their ballots might be unhappy if they feel they’re being excluded when it’s time to start counting them.