Sprawling Election Season Exposes County’s Cramped Quarters

05/10/14 | By | More

OURAY COUNTY – The year’s still young, but believe it or not, election season has arrived, with primaries right around the corner, and the 2014 general election waiting impatiently in the wings.

Ouray County Clerk Michele Nauer is on top of all that. Sample primary ballots are already good to go, and the official ballots will be printed, prepped and mailed by the first week of June – in plenty of time for the June 24 mail-in primary election.

It’s all part of the job description. But Nauer just has one request: she needs some space. Dedicated space, that is, to accommodate the county elections she is charged with overseeing.

The problem is that elections don’t happen in just one day anymore, and they’re not just about voting booths and ballots.

Thanks to federal and state regulations introduced over the past decade, from the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to the Colorado Voter Access & Modernized Elections Act of 2013, elections are now a complex nexus of paperwork, machinery and people working in a dedicated, secure space complete with video surveillance, for two months leading up to general election day and a month afterwards.

In even-numbered election years (such as this year) when there are also midsummer primaries, Nauer is in election mode a full six months of the year.

Since the Ouray County Courthouse was remodeled a number of years ago, Nauer has used the county commissioners meeting room as her election workspace during every election season.

The commissioners typically hold two meetings per month there, and one per month in Ridgway at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center. But when it comes time to get an election underway, the commissioners move out of their meeting room, and Nauer moves in.

That means mobilizing a lot of equipment stored in random places throughout the courthouse when elections are not underway: ballot-counting equipment and election computers are housed in the vault in the County Clerk’s office, ballot boxes reside downstairs in the basement, and voting booths lurk underneath the stairwell in the front hallway.

“A million years ago we were able to handle things in the [County Clerk’s] office,” Nauer said. But due to the new security and logistical requirements, this is no longer in the realm of feasibility. “The office isn’t secure because it is a public office,” Nauer explained. “When I am in official election mode and I have ballots, I can’t have them lying around on my desk; I have to track the ballots very carefully. I do that all back in the commissioners room.”

Even the stored voting equipment represents a potential security breach, because “people go in and out of the vault all the time,” Nauer explained.

It all adds up to an urgent need to have everything stored in a dedicated, secure space.

Elections with mail-in ballots are nothing new for Nauer; she has been conducting them for off-year elections ever since the 1990s. But with Colorado’s new election law, all elections must now be conducted by mail-in ballot.

The intent of the law is to make it as easy and convenient as possible for Colorado’s voters to participate in elections.

So, voters have the option of mailing in their ballots, delivering them in person to the courthouse at any time during business hours for two weeks leading up to election day, or even filling out the ballot old-style in a voting booth at the courthouse on election day.

It may be more convenient for the voters, but it places a huge extra burden on county election officials like Nauer. (The burden is slightly offset by the fact that counties no longer have to maintain separate polling places for different precincts on election day.)

But with the poles opening a couple weeks before election day so people can drop off ballots, register to vote, or get a ballot, Nauer said things get incredibly congested with election traffic, especially at her County Clerk’s office – another reason why “it is critically important to have a space for elections that is separate” from other business conducted at the county clerk’s office, Nauer said.

Currently, she said, “there is no place else,” other than the commissioners meeting room, that could serve that function because it is the only county-owned space that can be made fully secure and is also ADA-compliant (another federal and state mandate).

When the matter was broached at a Ouray Board of County Commissioners meeting last December, Commissioner Lynn Padgett suggested permanently converting the commissioners meeting room into a dedicated election work space for Nauer and other election officials.

That would mean that the commissioners would need to find another place to hold their meetings in Ouray. Padgett suggested the county courtroom as an alternative. This is where commissioners traditionally met, before they had a dedicated meeting room downstairs.

The problem is, BOCC meetings would be displaced whenever the courtroom was being used for court-related matters, and with court caseloads on the rise in Ouray County, this could become a fairly regular inconvenience.

Another solution would be for the commissioners to hold the majority of their meetings in Ridgway, rather than Ouray. In fact, a draft commissioners meeting schedule for 2014 showed them doing exactly that.

Padgett warmed to the idea, pointing out that Ridgway is the geographic center of the county, and that the 4-H Event Center is better suited for accommodating the large groups of people who occasionally crash BOCC meetings when a hot topic is on the agenda.

Fedel, on the other hand, bristled at the concept, stating that the majority of the commissioners’ meetings should be held at the county seat – Ouray. He was also not inclined to give up the commissioners’ dedicated meeting space at the courthouse in order to convert it into election headquarters, and railed against the “unfunded mandates” from the state that require ever longer, more elaborate election processes at the expense of the counties.

So for now, as this year’s election season lurches forward, it’s back to the schlepping game. Nauer, who is facing some health issues, will be relying on the County Commissioners (among others) to help with the hauling, and will be taking over their meeting room through November.

“They built this building so there would be plenty of space forever,” Nauer reflected. “But here we are, 125 years later, and we are just running out of space.”

swright@watchnewspapers.com or Tweet @iamsamwright 

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