30 October 2008

Denver County Elections: Poll Workers & Election Day Challenges

Just under two weeks ago I posted about poll watchers and election day voter challenges in Denver county. That post was based on my impressions of Denver election law gleaned from a three hour poll worker training course. Today I am happy to report that some of my impressions were wrong.

I wrote at the time that one of the things I learned (seasoned hands will recognize the neophyte here) is that every citizen has the right to challenge any citizen's eligibility to vote. I further wrote that, once a voter has been challenged, his or her only recourse is to cast a provisional ballot and wait for the elections commission to sort out the details within the ten days following the election. This, happily, is not true.

During a second training I received clarification on this issue.

First, there's a limit to the extent to which one person may challenge another's eligibility to vote. The challenger must also be a registered voter in the same precinct as the challenged voter. This would prohibit me from driving into a heavily contested precinct that was not also part of my polling locale and interfering with an election. The notion behind the law, as explained to me, is that if you know your neighbor is not eligible to cast a ballot for one of three reasons, then you can challenge.

Those reasons are quite clear, and quite limited, to the following:

According to Denver Elections officials, those are the only three reasons a voter may be challenged. Interestingly enough, Secretary of State Mike Coffman's "Voter Challenge" form includes a fourth: "Other." Denver Elections officials instructed a group of about forty of us to disregard that "Other." It's the Secretary of State's form, said course supervisor Tom Mann. "We don't like it." Here's the law, he went on: citizenship, residence, or age. Those are the only reasons a challenge may even be considered. Of course, this isn't the first Coffman-designed form that has raised questions and eyebrows in the state.

Taking the challenge process a step further, I was also relieved to learn that it is not incumbent on any poll worker to determine the outcome of a challenge. Both parties are taken aside. Paperwork to report the challenge is begun. The voting process slows down (which may be exactly the point of the challenge, under certain circumstances). If the voter was challenged on citizenship, say, the poll supervisor would ask: "Are you a citizen?"

If the challenged voter says "Yes," then nothing more is needed except a quick extra detail or two on the Voter Challenge form. The challenged voter attests under federal law that she is eligible to vote. She votes a standard ballot (not a provisional ballot). Her information will be checked out by elections officials after the election. If there is any discrepancy between her claim and her actual status, then that will be dealt with appropriately according to federal law. Same for any challenge regarding residence or age. Regardless of the challenged voter's actual status, her vote counts--and counts on election day--on the strength of her testimony.

In the event that a would-be voter says "No," she's not a citizen, an interesting scenario plays out. Either she casts aside her aspirations and leaves, or she insists that she wants to vote. Denver's answer? Okay. She can vote. By provisional ballot. Of course, her vote will be reviewed and disqualified based on citizenship status. But Denver Elections officials are very clear about this point: Everybody votes. Diffuse conflicts in the polling place. Use the provisional ballot as a tool to afford people the vote in the moment, and let the referees figure out afterward which votes were cast eligibly and which were not.

Campaigns and special interest groups may apply to have poll watchers in polling locations citywide to ensure that polls are running smoothly, e.g. to the best interests of a candidate or cause. In some cases, I infer, since it came up in training, those poll watchers may launch inappropriate challenges in order to interfere with the voting process. The poll supervisor does have the responsibility to watch for this abuse and address it should it come up. Poll supervisors can call for a field representative to come to a polling location and remove any poll watcher who abuses the challenge. (I had originally written that it would fall to the poll worker to call the police for removal, which I am also happy to report is not the only recourse. If a supervisor calls a field rep, the field rep may in turn take strip poll watcher's certificate, thus rendering the poll watcher's presence at the polls illegal. The police might then be called as a last resort.)

As we approach November 4, I am happy to report any information that clarifies how Denver poll workers will work to ensure a smooth process this voting day. It sounds like there are quite a lot of us working the polls, according to Denver Elections Director Michael Scarpello. He told the Rocky Mountain News yesterday that the county has overhired poll workers this year precisely to deal with record turnouts.

If you have questions or comments about poll workers, Denver, and this election, please write and share. There's nothing more powerful this year than ensuring that every voter votes, and every vote counts.