The city of Aspen’s consultant who has helped run the last two municipal elections has been paid $20,000 or more in each instance, but officials say the expense is well worth it in a world where voting can be followed by litigation.
Dwight Shellman, formerly the elections manager at Pitkin County, billed the city $22,000 — at $50 an hour — for his work on the May election and June runoff this year. He also billed the city around $20,000 in 2011, for work on the municipal election, as well as his efforts to draft and implement a new election ordinance that included more stringent rules on, among other things, vote verification.
Prior to the 2011 vote, elections were conducted using in-house staff in the city clerk’s office — which has three full-time employees — as well as polling-place workers and a volunteer election commission.
But following the 2009 election, when the city used an “instant runoff voting” system, complaints were filed with both the city and the district attorney’s office alleging improper election techniques. The election also was subject to a lawsuit brought by Marilyn Marks of Aspen, who wished to see voted ballots from the contest.
Shellman said election litigation is “growing exponentially,” not just in Aspen but nationwide.
“I know $20,000 is a lot of money,” Shellman said. “But it also pales in comparison to the cost” of an election challenge.
The 2011 election code rewrite and other processes addressed the critics’ concerns, said City Clerk Kathryn Koch.
Shellman, who was the county’s election manager for three-and-a-half years before first working for the city, said the municipal government goes above and beyond what is required in terms of conducting its elections. For example, he said, the state does not require municipalities to verify the signatures on mail-in ballots, but the city does. Between the election and the following runoff, that process took four days this year.
The city verifies vote tallies with post-election audits that go beyond the required canvassing process, Koch said.
Shellman, who worked over 400 hours on Aspen’s elections this year, also performed services such as sending candidates lists of who cast early absentee ballots, allowing campaigns to focus get-out-the-vote efforts on election day.
Since the runoff wrapped up, Shellman has relocated to Denver, and is looking for a full-time job working on elections on the Front Range. He will likely not be available for future Aspen municipal votes.
Koch noted that, besides election work, the clerk’s office is responsible for myriad other tasks, such as noticing meeting agendas, taking notes, keeping city records, processing liquor license applications and dealing with special events. Those day-to-day tasks continue throughout the election cycle. Without Shellman, Koch, who has been the point person in Aspen elections for decades, said she would likely bring in contract labor to handle some of the day-to-day clerk work, while she would go back to managing elections during the political season.
With the new election code and Shellman’s guidance over the last two cycles, “there is a process in place,” Koch said.