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SB17-138 Facts about Election Watchers

Q. Why are watchers needed when election judges appointed by both major parties are working in teams?

  • Without watchers, minor parties, issue committees and unaffiliated candidates have no representation in election processing while their partisan opponents (D’s and R’s) make the decisions and process the election. All interested parties must have representation to lodge challenges when discrepancies are noted. When all interested parties have representatives observing a transparent election process, fairness and voter confidence are assured.
  • Many functions are not conducted by teams, but by one partisan judge or staff member, with no other oversight.
  • Election judges are typically assigned narrow tasks and are unable to assess the full process or challenge improper procedures. Watchers can focus on high risk or trouble spots.
  • Few election judges are involved in oversight of computer-based systems and machines, now more vulnerable than ever to manipulation from bad actors or technical failures.
  • Watchers are unpaid volunteers and are not concerned about negative employment consequences of identifying errors or challenging improper decisions or controls.

 

Q. Do watchers slow down and interfere with the process of the election?

  • Providing all interested parties with oversight and challenge opportunities is an integral part of the fair process itself. Checks and balances and transparency measures are crucial elements and must not be considered hindrances to the speed of election processing. In general, watchers are careful not to create delays or bottlenecks in the process.
  • The Lundberg amendment will permit even more efficiency by permitting watchers to view key documents “off line” with minimal interaction with judges in some areas.
  • The Lundberg amendment also permits the Secretary of State to reduce the number of watchers by lot if an unusual situation creates more watchers than can be accommodated.

 

Q. Why are watchers needed when post-election audits are required in Colorado?

  • Post-election audits are limited in scope and only focus on the accuracy of the tabulation. Post-election audits do not test voter eligibility, signature verification, ballot security, assurance that all eligible ballots were counted, accurate ballot issuance, voter suppression, etc. These are examples of processes and documentation that watchers can review prior to the audit and certification.

 

Q. Have there been significant problems with watchers creating problems?

  • Not to our knowledge. None were reported in committee testimony. Tensions between watchers and officials tend to occur when watchers detect discrepancies, errors in the process, or poorly operating equipment. Such tension is natural and is best alleviated by providing more transparency, not less. Sound public policy requires transparency that will not permit problems to be concealed.

 

Q. What do other states’ laws permit for election observation?

  • All 50 states permit watchers, also called “observers,” to oversee virtually all aspects of the elections. Some states permit any member of the public to observe the processing and ballot counting. Others permit both partisan advocates as well as non-partisan independent observers to watch and review the process. Others, like Colorado, limit the observation to “interested parties,” having a candidate or issue on the ballot, with no independent non-partisan observation permitted.  Colorado’s policies tend to be less transparent and more “restrictive,” when policies are compared with other states.

 

Q. Shouldn’t election officials be permitted to select or veto watchers?

  • No. Independence from election officials is fundamental to the check-and-balance process that watchers are intended to provide. Watchers’ duties run to their appointing party or campaign, not to the government. The appointing party or campaign is responsible for removing any watcher who is unprofessional or disruptive in his or her activities. Government conducted background checks are inappropriate and unnecessary.

 

Q. How is personal data like Social Security number, driver’s license number, or copies or signature protected from irresponsible watchers?

  • The bill includes a watcher oath that prevents recording such data. It would be rare for watcher to have any need to verify a voters’ SS# or DL#.

 

More Posts on SB17-138

Letter to the Senators: Support the L_011 amendment for SB-138

To: The Colorado Senators
From: Harvie Branscomb
Subject:  Great News- L_011 to SB-138 would make a bad bill into good- please support

Senator                                                            April 14, 2017

I have written to you previously about SB17-138 the SOS watcher bill. On Thursday, Senator Lundberg, and Senator Fields, and importantly Senate Sponsor Jack Tate, agreed to support a 3rd reading amendment for SB-138 L_011.  The amendment (a pre-amended version is attached) would render the bill supportive of excellent transparency for party and candidate and issue committee-appointed watching.  Watchers are not random citizens. They are selected by appointing authorities and given credentials adequate to gain quick access in critical circumstances to VSPCs, central count and other places where conduct of elections occur.

After supporting and passing amendment L_011,  I hope you will support passage of SB-138 on Monday. Without L_011 it is my hope that the current SB-138 will die in the Senate as it only allows the SOS to push current rules into law in place of excellent timeless protections that have been there for decades. Such a codification of SOS rule would be a mistake at this time, when new election methods make watching so much harder than before.

Some county clerks I spoke with are not supporting the amendment. I believe that they are not thinking clearly about the benefit for the public as much as they are thinking about their own self-interest.  They want background checks for watchers that could become unnecessary obstacles found in no other state.  Some clerks and SOS may not want watchers to have access to election records.  I've been told that canvass boards should do the "witness and verify" function. That is unlikely and inadequate since canvass boards are small and led by the clerk. Watchers are far more likely to perform adequate and needed verification.

As a Senator you must decide this law guided by basic principles of transparency and citizen access (in fact citizen oversight).  The original SOS-written bill was trying to codify current SOS watcher rules that limit access for watchers more narrowly than broad access allowed by the current statute. To the contrary, and for the benefit of campaigns and public, L_011 does update statute consistent with existing strong standards for transparency. 

I attach a copy of the bill as if L_011 was already included.  When this amendment passes on Monday morning, we will  have an opportunity for an exciting debate in the House over details, no doubt.  Without the L_011 amendment we election quality activists and Democratic and Republican legislators who care about election integrity will continue to try to stop the bill.

On Monday morning, I expect Senator Lundberg will move L_011 on behalf of election transparency and integrity. This is what it does:                      
 
 1.    clearly states the General Assembly’s intent of fully transparent and verifiable elections in Colorado. 
 
 2.    defines “witness and verify” to ensure that timely and complete access is given to watchers so that they may attest to accuracy of records and compliance with applicable law and election rules. 
 
 3.    assures that if needed, at least one watcher may be present for every two election officials in an election facility. (Some activities require 1:1 observation and others are 1:10 or more. Acceptable overall average is 1:2.) In the unlikely event of the presence of too many watchers for practical accommodation, the Secretary of State may reduce the number of watchers by lot. 
 
 4.    assures that all activities conducted by election officials or voting systems and all documents can be observed by watchers. 
 
 5.    removes the bill’s current proposal to permit clerks to conduct discretionary background checks on watchers. 
 
 6. simplifies the new watcher oath to comply with an existing statutory requirement.
 
 7. extends the period for watching to account for the much earlier preparation of materials for the election.

 If approved, these important changes will provide the transparency that Colorado modernized elections require and make it clear to candidates and campaigns that they have sufficient access to verify election records and processes. Continued and expanded statutory support for election watchers will foster independent confidence in our elections.
 
  Thanks to the Senators who have expressed support for the L_011 amendment.

Harvie Branscomb