No Small Stuff (cont.): Cost, “Paper Dust” Lead to Short Delay of Steamboat Springs Election

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Election officials in Steamboat Springs, CO are postponing a municipal election scheduled for June by one week in order to account for potential printing delays, cost considerations for the counting process and the requirements of federal law. The Steamboat Pilot has more:

The date of the West Steamboat Neighborhoods annexation election has been postponed by a week to June 25. 

The Steamboat Springs city attorney and City Clerk’s Office requested additional time to print and mail ballots. The election was originally scheduled for June 18.

The city has to mail ballots to residents in the military and other voters living overseas 45 days prior to the election to meet deadlines set by federal law. If the ballots weren’t mailed to military personnel by May 3, the election would have to be rescheduled.

City Attorney Dan Foote expressed some concern that the June 18 date would grant very little wiggle room if something went wrong in the printing process. He said the vendors printing the ballots were confident they could get the job done in time but “thought it would be helpful to have another week.”

“I think the city clerk might appreciate an additional week to get this done,” he told Steamboat Springs City Council Tuesday as he asked for council members feelings on delaying the election.

The delay was driven by at least two considerations: the desire of the city to avoid the cost of machine counting and local requirements for a ballot type with perforated stubs that can generate troublesome “paper dust”:

Council members initially wanted to go forward with the June 18 date in the interest of making a determination on the annexation sooner, rather than later.

A majority had a change of heart after discussing other election issues, including whether ballots would be hand or machine counted.

“I actually think we should give the extra week,” Council President Jason Lacy said. “While I would like to give this taken care of as soon as possible, staff is requesting the extra time, and then we know we’re not going to run up against any issues on the mailing as being a problem. For me, I would prefer to move it to June 25.”

The ballots will be hand counted.

Beyond a cost-saving measure — Foote said rental of a ballot counting machine would cost $3,000 to $4,000 and requires different paper that adds an additional expense of $1,000 to $4,000 — technicalities in election law could make it simpler to hand count the ballots.

In the past, ballots were sent out with two perforated stubs that had ballot numbers printed on them. One stub was torn off when the ballot was mailed, and the second stub is torn when the ballot is returned. Election officials used this method to track and verify ballots.

The county and state did away with the stubs and started using signature verification when they began conducting elections regulated by Colorado’s Uniform Election Code. Steamboat’s municipal elections are governed by Steamboat’s municipal election code, though, and it still requires the tear-off stubs in addition to signature verification.  

“The problem is the perforations lead to this paper dust that can interfere with the functioning of the machines,” Foote told council members.

“Is this like the hanging chads?” Lacy asked while other council members laughed, referring to the issue that caused a recount of Floirda’s ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

“This is the perforated stubs,” Foote said.

Foote said one voting system can function with “this stub issue,” but the count has to be stopped and cleaned out. If that’s not done properly, the machine breaks down and has to be repaired.

City Council opted to conduct an election by hand count, instead of hurrying to change the municipal code with an emergency ordinance in two special meetings before ballots have to be mailed and printed in early May.

This story illustrates my observation that “there is no small stuff in elections”; the City is balancing the needs of its voters (and federal law) with other considerations like cost and manageability and making the decision to give itself a little more time. It’s a fascinating look at the planning process many communities face and a reminder that there’s way more to election administration than Election Day. Mind the dust – and stay tuned …

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