Saguache County Clerk recalled by more than 2-to-1 vote

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by Matie Belle Lakish

An election to recall County Clerk Melinda Myers, held on January 24, 2012, unseated Myers, just over a year after she won her second term as clerk. The total vote in the county was 941 in favor of recall, and 453 against. Two alternate candidates, Carla Gomez, Republican, and Pat Jenkins, Independent, were on the ballot, and Gomez took the election 762 to 319. Ballots were counted by hand and it was reported that the election went smoothly and the tallying went quickly.

The election of November 2010 has been fraught with controversy ever since it occurred. The controversy stemmed from a mistake in the election night count, which originally called Gomez, who ran in that election as well, the winner. Later, Clerk Myers noticed a discrepancy in the number of votes tallied and the number of votes cast, and re-ran the numbers. In the second count, it was discovered that Precinct 5, which includes Crestone and Baca, had not been counted correctly because of a computer program that tabulates votes. When the votes were recounted, the 197 extra votes from District 5 changed the outcome of the election, and showed Myers as the winner. A number of investigations ensued, including an investigation by the Colorado State Grand Jury, which indicated Myers was innocent of criminal activity or gross negligence, but the political controversy continued. A few months later a recall petition was circulated and signed by enough voters to put the measure on the ballot.

At the special recall election,  which was run by the Saguache County Treasurer in collaboration with El Paso County, eight of the nine precincts showed majorities going in favor of the recall. In Precinct 5 (Crestone/Baca), which is where the election was won in 2010, 261 voters said “no” to the recall, while 42 voted in favor.

A number of issues were raised prior to the election. Many arose because of legal challenges brought by Marilyn Marks, an Aspen resident who identifies herself as an election advocate. One of the issues that drew the most attention was whether a County Clerk has the right to withhold ballots from the public.

Shortly after the election, which was handled under the jurisdiction of the previous Secretary of State, the new Secretary, Tim Geitner, under pressure from Marks, ordered Myers to release the ballots for a hand count, which he planned to allow Marks to observe. Myers refused to turn the ballots over to the Secretary without a judge’s order, saying that doing so might violate her legal obligation to protect voter privacy. Geitner contended that county clerks do not have that right, and went to court to challenge Myers on the issue. Judge Martin Gonzales ruled that clerks don’t have such a right to withhold ballots, and Myers did release the ballots to Geitner, who conducted a review of the ballots in Saguache, with a number of citizens observing. Later, Marks made copies of the ballots, except for a few that Myers contended could be traced to the individual voters.

Another issue between Marks and Myers was related to CORA requests, Colorado Open Records Act allows citizens to request public records. While there is a great deal to be said for open elections and hand counting of ballots, debates are ongoing about whether all ballots should be public, or whether making them so violates privacy of voters. Other issues that this election raises, some of which are now being addressed with new regulations at the Secretary of State’s office, are whether CORA requests must take precedence over other county business. Secretary Geitner recently announced new regulations which limit CORA requests that are filed close to elections. He is also clarifying procedures for releasing ballots. Controversy is still alive over whether hand counts are superior to machine counts. The recall election itself was hand counted.

The controversy stirred up a lot of conflict in Saguache County, and has cost the county tens of thousands of dollars in staff time, legal fees, and election related expenses. Hopefully, in the long run, this will prove to be a valuable experience for the voting public, and the important elections of 2012 will be handled correctly.

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