Primary turnout breaks records

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Pitkin County elections manager explains delays

The 2010 primary election in Pitkin County was marked by a few “speed bumps,” which kept final results from being known until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, but overall the election was a success with the highest ever voter turnout for a primary in a nonpresidential election year, county elections manager Dwight Shellman said Wednesday.

A technical difficulty uploading voting information from the county’s touch-screen machines caused hours of delay and an eventual hand count, Shellman said. Come general election time in November, that issue should be eliminated, Shellman said.

Both Shellman and Clerk and Recorder Janice Vos Caudill were in the office until 3 a.m. Wednesday, and Pitkin County was the last county in the state to report its final election tallies to The Associated Press.

With 3,170 ballots cast, including 63 provisional ballots, Tuesday’s turnout was 23 percent of registered voters and 31 percent of active voters, making it the third highest voter turnout ever in Pitkin County for a primary. Both the 1992 and 2000 primaries had turnouts of 28 percent of registered voters, making 2010 the highest primary turnout in a nonpresidential election year. In 2004, the last time there was a contested county race on the primary ballot, 1,761 voters, or about 14 percent, turned out, Shellman said. 

Of the 3,170 total county residents who voted, 47 percent cast their ballots on election day at their precinct, 33 percent mailed their ballots in and 17 percent voted early in person.

Shellman, who was running his first election Tuesday, said the county was caught off guard by the number of people who showed up to vote in person for the primary. 

“Rio Grande was much busier than we anticipated,” Shellman said, referring to the Rio Grande Room, which was the polling place for precincts 1 through 4. The Common House polling place for precinct 3 had been eliminated because of handicapped accessibility issues, and, along with the polling place at St. Mary Church, was consolidated into the Rio Grande Room.

 Dustin Franz/Aspen Daily News
Dwight Shellman, center, shows signs of fatigue and frustration as technical difficulties delayed election results Tuesday night at the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s office. Also pictured are Pitkin County Republican Party Chair Freida Wallison, left, and Pitkin County Democratic Party Chair Camilla Auger, right.

As Pitkin County ran both a mail-in and polling place election, some voters showed up to the polling place to cast a ballot, but had previously requested a mail-in ballot. Voters in those cases either had to fill out a provisional ballot or were asked to go to the county clerk’s office and cast an absentee ballot there. This often caused frustrating delays for voters, Shellman said.

Shellman, who said the primary election was a valuable training experience, said that in the future, he plans to communicate better with candidate campaigns so that those campaigns can help streamline the process for Pitkin County voters. These efforts will include making sure campaigns have the correct polling place information and prodding campaigns to encourage supporters to make sure the county has their correct voter information, Shellman said. With a redesigned website, residents can now register to vote and update their address online.

Shellman also said he plans to have better organization in November at the polling places, with more volunteers and election judges. Voters will be greeted when they enter the polling place by someone with a poll book who can look up voter registration information and can figure out from the outset if there are any problems, Shellman said.

With many Colorado counties pushing for all mail-in ballot elections, Shellman said he plans to continue operating precinct polling places on election day, as long as Pitkin Count citizens say they want that and as long as the law allows election day precinct voting.

“There is a sizable percentage of this community that really likes going to the polling place,” Shellman said. “It’s an important civic activity. We understand that.”

Shellman opined that the drive toward all mail-in elections is pushed by large Front Range counties that see great benefit in the savings and ease of conducting them. Anyone who has ever voted at an urban precinct can understand why so many of those voters prefer mail-in voting, Shellman said.

“We have a whole different culture here,” Shellman said, with easy to access polling places filled with friends and neighbors.