Ernest Luning, The Colorado Statesman
Three months after being sworn in, Secretary of State Wayne Williams has mostly stayed out of the news, and that’s the way he likes it.
It’s a marked contrast from Williams’s predecessor, fellow Republican Scott Gessler, an election law attorney who embraced the nickname “honey badger,” a varmint known for the relentlessness of its attack. Where Gessler seemingly courted controversy — and was the target of one complaint after another from Democrats — Williams is taking a more conciliatory approach, working closely with county clerks across the state and stressing his office’s mission providing services to voters, businesses and nonprofit groups.
“The role, once you’re in there, isn’t about which party you’re in, it’s how you serve the citizens,” Williams said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “There are some things I might do differently than another individual, but I try to work very hard to make sure this government office operates the way we would if we were trying to attract customers.”
Secretary of State Wayne Williams is working to unify the states’ election systems before the 2016 presidential election.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
The reviews of Williams have been glowing from officials and activists alike, including some who routinely clashed with Gessler at nearly every turn.
“Wayne is trying to mend a lot of the broken relationships that happened in the previous administration between the clerks and the secretary of state’s office,” said Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson, a Democrat. “More important, though, is how he is listening to what the clerks need,” she said, adding that she has “great conversations, a great working relationship” with Williams.
Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, a Republican, sounded a similar note.
“Wayne has really made an effort to rebuild the relationship between the secretary’s office and the clerks,” he said. “It has to be a partnership between the clerks and the secretary, and I think that’s been lost over the last few years.” Williams, Crane said, is taking a collaborative approach when it comes to drafting legislation and rules, working to “come up with solutions that make sense for everybody.”
That Williams is patching up relations with clerks might not come as a huge surprise — he was El Paso County clerk when he ran last fall, the first time in the state’s history that a sitting clerk has been elected secretary of state — but he’s winning rare praise even from typically critical quarters.
“There’s a lot more communication,” said Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “Secretary Williams has been willing to sit down and find common ground when we can do that, and that’s a great approach coming from the secretary of state’s office.”
She pointed to a bill — Senate Bill 15-060 — that Common Cause originally opposed but, after working on amendments with Williams’s office, the organization was eventually “excited to support it, thanks to the secretary’s leadership,” she said. “I think it will result in better legislation going forward.” (The bill, which has passed both chambers unanimously, allows residents to update their voter registration when they update driver’s licenses.)
“We’ve tried to concentrate our efforts in the Legislature on those issues that have a good chance of passing,” Williams said, acknowledging that most of the legislation his office has worked on this year amounts to “cleaning up around the edges.” The split majorities in the Legislature, he added, encourage practical compromise.
Also included on his office’s legislative agenda are a bill allowing voters to opt out of receiving a mail ballot and potentially a proposal for the state to help pay for 24-7 ballot drop boxes in counties that might not be able to afford it. (The cost can run as high as $10,000 for sites that don’t already have surveillance cameras installed.)
Williams has also put together a bipartisan task force to study questions about how poll watchers can operate in elections conducted mostly by mail ballot, a response to a bill that died earlier this session “because it wasn’t quite ready yet,” he said.
Down the road, Williams said he wants to figure out a constitutional amendment to run on next year’s ballot to resolve conflicts between requirements for military and overseas voters and constitutional deadlines for recall elections.
“We’ll work with the Bipartisan Election Advisory Committee to say how we write this in a way that doesn’t mess with recalls one way or the other, but changes the deadline so you don’t have a law that says you send out ballots 45 days ahead of time and a constitution that says you only know who the candidates are 15 days ahead of time,” he said. “We ought not to put a clerk in the position of having to choose which law to violate.”
Ahead could be a change to reduce statutory requirements for the number of voting sites in some counties. “Since we’re sending everyone a mail ballot, the idea is you don’t need as many sites, and that’s certainly the way voting trends are headed,” he said, noting that more than 75 percent of voters who didn’t cast mail ballots showed up on Election Day and half the remainder voted the day before. “Some counties — El Paso, Jefferson and Arapahoe — had to have a dozen sites for 100 people” in the weeks before Election Day, he said. “Should there be an in-person option? Sure, but do you need that many?”
But like other potential changes, that one might have to wait until after next year, when the state conducts a presidential election, Williams said.
“The eyes of the nation may be upon Colorado. If the election’s close, Colorado is likely to be a key factor deciding it,” he said with a rueful smile. “If the election’s not close, the clerks rest very easy.”
But there’s no way to tell in advance, so Williams is moving ahead with plans to pick a uniform voting system for the state. The effort, begun under Gessler, will replace the hodgepodge of voting systems accrued by counties over the past couple decades, including some that use operating systems that are no longer supported and others that lack basic functions, such as automatic feeds for ballot counting machines.
Denver is piloting one system in its upcoming municipal election and as many as five vendors could participate in test runs around the state in November. After that, a pilot-review committee will assess the performances and make recommendations so that counties that want to replace their systems can do so before next year’s primary election.
“The notion is to come up with one system statewide, but the committee might come up with a different recommendation. They might say that in small counties, this one works best, in large counties this works best. The downside with a patchwork of voting systems, like we have right now, is when you have a complete turnover of everybody in your clerk’s office, if your system’s not the same as your neighbor’s, who’s going to help? And how do you write a regulation that covers how you run something if there’s 16 different ways of doing things in the state?” Williams said.
“We want to make sure that when it comes time for the 2016 election that we’re ready,” he said, noting that there are 18 new clerks around the state and likely to be 20 by the time next fall rolls around. “That’s a third of our clerks. We want to make sure we provide the support for them that they need and they’re ready to run this very challenging election.”
He said that intensive training with clerks and their staff is starting this spring, emphasizing the importance of solving problems with elections before they happen. “It’s the most visible thing a clerk does,” he said. “If I get your motor vehicle registration wrong, I have time to fix it. If I get the election wrong, I don’t.”
While Williams is winning praise for his approach, there’s still disagreement over some election policy, such as his contention that some voters should provide photo identification when they register or vote. Williams said he supports changing the law to require photo I.D. for those who register during the window when ballots are out, although anyone without a photo I.D. could register before that.
“I think you need to have that protection, that security there,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone who can legally vote is allowed to vote. But we want to have that protection so the integrity’s safe as well, there’s that balance.”
Nuñez said that Common Cause and Williams “are in very different places” when it comes to photo I.D., though Johnson opened a door to working with Williams to find common ground.
“Voter I.D. keeps coming up every year,” Johnson said. She’s been talking with other clerks about the question. “Let’s be on the forefront with this. It’s not going to go away. I think we need to sit down and have that conversation.” Pointing out that the list of acceptable identification was concocted years ago, she added, “How do we expand it? How do we tighten it? Those are the things we need to talk about.”
Williams also points out that, while elections might be the most visible activity his office conducts, other work dominates the secretary of state’s operations, including overseeing bingo games and raffles, certifying notaries and providing something called an apostille, a document authenticating birth certificates and marriage licenses, typically for foreign governments. And it’s performing those tasks, he said, where partisanship disappears.
“I was elected as a county commissioner as a Republican, but once you’re there, you serve everybody. If someone called up and said my road hasn’t been plowed yet, I never pulled up that person’s voter registration. The roads had no party affiliation.”
It’s the same conducting business in his new position, Williams said.
“We’re trying to make it so it’s easy to set up a business, easy to set up a nonprofit, easy to employ people, easy to provide aid to the community, so that government can be the help, as opposed to the hindrance,” he said. “The motto here is helping people achieve the American Dream.”
Ann Schmike from April 15 Colorado Chalkbeat
The State Board of Health voted unanimously today to approve rules that would require parents to submit non-medical exemption forms opting children out of immunizations more frequently to schools and child care facilities.
The change, which will take effect July 1, 2016, requires parents of K-12 children to submit personal belief or religious exemption forms annually and parents of younger children to submit the forms up to five times prior to kindergarten. (See this story for more background.)
A related provision meant to reduce the paperwork burden on schools will create an online exemption form that parents can submit directly to the state health department.
Currently parents have to submit an exemption form just once during their children’s schooling.
Health department officials say the more stringent requirements, which are still far from the strictest in the country, will help reduce exemptions claimed out of convenience rather than conviction and help push down Colorado’s higher-then-average immunization exemption rates.
Today’s hearing comes about a year after the state legislature passed House Bill 14-1288, which required schools to release immunization and exemption rates upon request and assigned the Board of Health to examine the exemption frequency issue.
The vote took place after a public comment session that featured a number of speakers who expressed strong support for the change, several who opposed the change, and several who said they wished the rules made it even harder to claim exemptions.
In the brief discussion that followed public comment, some board members agreed that the rules need to be even tougher, but said the change strikes a balance between two extremes.
“I am concerned that it doesn’t go far enough, but I do think it is a good first step,” said Board Member Jill Hunsaker-Ryan.
In addition to the exemption frequency rule, the Board of Health approved a plan to create a public database of immunization and exemption rates for all Colorado schools and child care facilities. That database represents a major expansion of the work Chalkbeat Colorado started in February when it published a first-of-its-kind database of immunization compliance and exemption rates for more than 400 schools in the state’s 20 largest districts.
The state’s database, expected in the 2016-17 school year, will create a standardized system for reporting school immunization rates, and set an annual Dec. 1 deadline for districts to report their data to the state. Since such a reporting deadline doesn’t currently exist, Chalkbeat’s database included rates that were compiled at all different times during the school year.
Finally, the rule changes approved today include an overview of a new online immunization module that’s being created by the state for parents who want more information. The module will include information on vaccine benefits and risks, vaccine safety, Colorado immunization rates, vaccination schedules, and a video on how vaccines work.
At least two public commenters argued that the module should include information on the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which provides financial compensation to people hurt by vaccines. After the public comment period, state officials said that was a reasonable suggestion and information on the topic would be added.