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State to investigate Saguache County election

Posted: Friday, Nov 12th, 2010

SAGUACHE — The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office (SOS) announced Tuesday that it will launch an official investigation into the reversal of the Nov. 2 election results following the discovery of mail-in ballots not counted on election night.

Saguache County Republican Party Vice-Chairman Michael Lobato received an e-mail from Republican Party attorney Ryan Call early Tuesday morning announcing the decision.

Saguache County Clerk Melinda Myers said she asked the SOS to conduct the investigation. Attorney Ben Gibbons told Lobato he had requested the investigation that morning in a telephone conversation with an SOS official. County commissioners agreed that it didn’t matter who asked the SOS to step in as long as they performed a re-tally to confirm the results.

The announcement came in the wake of a Nov. 5 “retabulation” of votes cast in the Nov. 2 election Friday by Myers and staff, with results reversing the outcome of last week’s Republican wins. Democrats Linda Joseph and clerk Myers were declared winners.

Joseph, the incumbent, was challenged by Republican Steve Carlson, and Myers was challenged by Republican Carla Gomez.

The new numbers posted following the recount reversed the results of the commissioner’s race between Linda Joseph and Steve Carlson, with Joseph winning by nine votes. The county clerk’s race showed Myers winning by 56 votes. Votes cast at the polls for Myers came to 392 and Gomez received a 430-count vote at the polls. Myers received 742 mail-in ballot votes to Gomez’ 640, so the majority of the votes electing Myers were recorded on mail-in ballots.

Nearly all the absentee (overseas) votes reportedly were cast for Joseph and Myers. Myers announced Saturday that 78 provisional ballots and 12 electronic ballots, which initially she said would not be counted until Nov. 13, would be counted Monday, Nov. 8.

Provisional ballots are issued when there is some question about voter registration or affiliation, what precinct the voter lives in, whether the voter has notified the county of a change of address and so forth. Provisional ballots also are issued if a voter did not receive a ballot or lost his or her mail-in ballot.

The reversal of the election results occurred after Myers and her staff counted the additional mail-in ballots, but Saguache County election judges maintain all mail-in votes were counted last Tuesday. A similar situation occurred in 2008 when absentee ballots were found in Center that overturned earlier counts for the mayoral and trustee races following the municipal election there.

The vote count changes were attributed to 93 mail-in ballots allegedly discovered as uncounted, along with seven absentee ballots. Some 1,290 mail-in ballots were counted on election night but the newly discovered number Friday pushed the mail in vote-count to a total of 1,383. The total in uncounted votes, with the absentees, came to 100.

Myers read from a printed explanation of the vote changes during a session with the Saguache County Commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday afternoon. She told a packed courtroom of concerned voters that problems first began with a new voting machine that was improperly programmed by the manufacturer, making it difficult to count overseas ballots.

On election night Myers said the same machine, an M650 purchased from ES&S, counted mail-in votes sent to the courthouse, which were saved to a disc. The same disc was later reloaded to save the totals of mail-in votes placed in separate ballot boxes at the polls. Votes cast at the polling place also were saved, but Myers did not specify if they were saved to the computer hooked to the voting machine and/or to a disc.

Clerk’s office employee Christian Samora, trained by ES&S to run the M650, inserted the mail-in ballot disc into the machine the next morning (Nov. 3). In examining the totals, he found they were more than the reported number of mail-in ballots previously recorded as sent to the clerk’s office. He viewed them on the computer screen, Myers said, but did not print them out.

Samora worked all day to try and track down what Myers terms was a “flaw” in the data, but was unable to resolve the issue.

After Myers conferred with the SOS, it was decided to run a retabulation on Friday, Nov. 5 by printing results directly from the voting machine and bypassing the software. The four counting judges - two from each party - conducted the tally. Myers said all the judges and watchers present for the retabulation “agreed...the machine performed flawlessly.”

Myers said that the machine scanned “the same ballots” scanned Nov. 2 “to ensure the will of the voters of Saguache County.”

On Monday Nov. 8, Samora attempted to load the disc from the Nov. 2 election results onto the laptop software provided by ES&S to print what Myers calls the “erroneous” reports. She says the disc would not load and sent an error message. Later that same day, Myers and her staffer Christian Samora, Bill McClure and Assessor Jackie Stephens, all Democrats, met in the commissioners’ courtroom and used the voting machine to print out votes by precinct. No Republicans, judges or watchers were present.

“I think that the people operating the equipment without dual party presence have compromised the election,” Al Kolwicz, spokesperson for Citizens for Accurate Mail Ballot Election Results said. “I, for one, would find it difficult to trust the chain of custody for the election materials.”

A provisional vote count set by Myers for Nov. 10 has been canceled. The SOS stated on Tuesday that the provisional ballots count would be postponed until after the pending investigation.

Mail-in ballot integrity questioned

In the wake of the recent vote “retabulation” by County Clerk Melinda Myers Friday, party officials and county residents are questioning the reliability of the mail-in ballot system after mail-in ballots played a major role in the recount.

Some 93 ballots were discovered during the retabulation, changing the outcome of the election. Voting judges and watchers insist that all absentee ballots received were properly counted Nov. 2.

Former Saguache County commissioner’s candidate Allen Jones has requested a complete log of all mail-in votes and mail-in voter records from the county clerk’s office. In his request, Jones concluded: “My faith in the integrity of this system has been totally compromised and I sincerely hope we can provide proof that I am wrong to question it.”

This year many voters, who do not remember requesting to be permanent mail-in voters, found themselves listed on the permanent mail-in record sheet. If they did not change their status as permanent mail-in voters prior to the election, they had to either mail in their vote or deposit it at the box marked mail-in at the polls or the courthouse.

Some who did register as mail-in voters complained they never received their ballot. This presents a different problem, since they cannot vote at the polls if they are recorded as permanent mail-in voters unless they fill out a provisional ballot, although some exceptions can be made. Provisional ballots can either be accepted or rejected for cause by the county clerk’s office.

Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher promoted mail-in ballots as the answer to long lines at the polls and voting machine malfunctions.

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