Grand Lake told to be cautious about voter rights
June 24, 2008
“Citizens of Grand Lake didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, and we are serious about our elections,” said Ray Blanchard, Grand Lake resident, business owner and voter.
Right after the most recent town election, Blanchard wrote a letter to the town outlining issues that appeared to make the election unfair. Suspect voting by perceived outside residents was one of them.
After an overturned April election in Grand County District Court and subsequent confusion about how to acquire a “clean” voter registration list for the next election, county officials, Colorado Secretary of State’s Office representatives, the assistant district attorney and town officials gathered Monday in Grand Lake’s boardroom to define voting law, even identify loopholes.
What it boils down to is “voter intent,” said state of Colorado Legal Specialist Troy Bratton and Elections Division employee J. Wayne Munster.
Proving one’s residency in an age when people are more mobile is highly difficult, forcing one to make assumptions, they said.
And in a community like Grand Lake, with around 80 percent second homes, the proof is even harder to come by.
But voters who side with Blanchard feel some are taking advantage of the system for tax purposes, disenfranchising “honest” voters who legitimately live in town.
“I don’t care who’s mayor. I care about having a list of people who are registered to vote and have paid all the pertinent taxes including vehicle registration,” he said.
Grand Lake has a 4 percent vehicle-purchase use tax in place, and some may skirt the tax, yet vote for elected positions.
“This is a core belief of mine, that the guys that started this experiment a couple hundred years ago had in mind that they did not want property to be the criteria for power, they wanted residency to be the criteria for power,” he said.
“It’s like reverse Boston Tea Party: Representation without taxation,” piped in Town Manager Shane Hale.
Owning property is not among voting criteria for residency, but Colorado statute does supply a list of factors that are. A driver’s license is only one indicator of a voter’s intent, but in itself is not proof of residency.
“We have no legal authority to tell (voters) they have to do anything, we just give them the information,” said County Clerk Sara Rosene about her office’s duty to keep lists updated by voter registration and lists of the deceased.
Her office strives to keep voters informed of conflicting residency information as it comes available, but mostly the burden of proof lies with the voter.
“When people move, frankly, it’s not always the first thing they think about ” they’re voter registration and drivers license,” she said.
Upon an election, the clerk can forward names of possible violators to the district attorney’s office, but because voting is a fundamental citizen right, the clerk does so sparingly and only with certainty.
Further complicating matters is the difficulty in challenging an absentee voter. Grand Lake had a record number of mail ballots in the April election.
The electorate is charged with monitoring itself, according to voting laws. Fellow voters, election judges or poll watchers may challenge a voter with a series of questions if one is suspected of voting illegally, but how can that be done with “a piece of paper and an envelope?” asked Trustee Jim Peterson.
A list of voter names is public record prior to an election, and one could be posted on the town’s Web site for other voters to examine, officials acknowledged.
Grand Lake Town Clerk Ronda Kolinske is sifting through 52 names of voters who may have voted illegally in the last election, an unprecedented number in Grand County.
By cross-referencing motor vehicle records with the Secretary of State database and voter registrations in other states, Kolinski says she is “struggling” to find out if anyone may have been registered in another place when having voted in Grand Lake.
“It’s something that I’ve never had to question before. In all the years I’ve been doing elections, I never questioned it until this year… I will continue to find out what I can,” she said.
Two voters, possible names on the list, voiced frustration.
Phil Pankey said although he spends little time at his home in the area, the rest of his time is spent overseas. He feels his right to vote may be threatened unjustly.
“I can’t vote anyplace else, I want to vote here,” he said.
“It almost gets to the point that when you participate and do a lot of things, and you have reasons to be here, you almost need an attorney and CPA to go along every place you go to address these kinds of problems,” said Jim Lynch, a self-proclaimed Grand Laker for 40 years who shares time in Tucson, Ariz.
“It really is frustrating. … I just think there’s a way this city can get a long a little bit better if we ever figure out a way to do it.”
Bratton and Munster cautioned Grand Lake to tread cautiously in the realm of a person’s right to vote. Laws, after all, are set up to protect the voter, “and if there’s ever a fine line, you leave the person on the list,” Bratton said.
“What it comes down to it, it’s a civil right,” Munster said, “and when civil rights are involved, you have to be more understanding than you want to be strict.”
To reach Tonya Bina, e-mail email@example.com, or 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.