Election year adventure begins for new Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien
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Anyone with questions about Eagle County Clerk and Recorder operations, including the new Colorado primary regulations, can contact Regina O’Brien at 970-328-8783 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
EAGLE — As 2018 advances, we are all continually reminded that it’s a general election year.
But its unlikely that anyone locally is more aware of that fact than Eagle County Clerk and Recorder Regina O’Brien. This year marks her first general election as county clerk and the first time her name will appear on the local ballot. She is new to the title, but not new to the work.
O’Brien was appointed as county clerk and recorder in the fall of 2016 after the previously elected clerk, Teak Simonton, was elected Eagle County Treasurer and Public Trustee. Prior to her appointment, O’Brien was the chief deputy county clerk. She has worked in the office since 2013.
“I started in motor vehicle registration. That’s where I cut my teeth, but then I moved to elections from there,” she said.
The county clerk’s office is unique in local government because of the wide array of services it oversees. There are five main components to the job — election administration, motor vehicle registration, liquor licensing, recording and service as the clerk for the Eagle County Board of Commissioners. Those jobs don’t necessarily overlap, which means O’Brien oversees staff members who focus on very different jobs. She believes her background — a undergraduate degree in government and international relations and a master’s degree in business — gives her a strong skill set for the job.
The job has many facets, but every two years, much of the clerk’s attention is directed toward elections. In 2018, some brand new challenges await statewide. The first will come in late June with Colorado primary elections.
Primary rule changes
In 2016, Colorado voters approved Proposition 108, which allows unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in primary elections. Previously, only voters affiliated with political parties could vote in primaries.
For registered Republicans and Democrats, the primary process will be unchanged. They will receive their respective party’s primary ballots in the mail and they will have until 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, to return them to the clerk’s office.
The process will look a lot different for unaffiliated voters, however. These people will have two options. They can choose a ballot preference by contacting the county clerk’s office, or they will automatically receive both primary ballots in the mail. While unaffiliated voters will receive both ballots, they can only return one of them.
If a voter returns two ballots in the single return envelope provided, by law, neither one can be counted.
“I want to emphasize to people to vote one, return one,” O’Brien said.
Balancing election goals
O’Brien noted that Colorado has two goals when it comes to running elections — enfranchisement and integrity. The trick lies in finding how to balance the two.
Colorado wants its residents to vote, and over the past few years, more and more people are doing just that. With the advent of mail-in ballots, voting has never been more convenient.
“In my experience, people support mail-in ballots,” O’Brien said. She noted that anecdotally, people talk about sitting at the kitchen table with voter guides, newspaper stories and other resources to assist them as they make their ballot choices.
“Colorado, with the mail balloting format, has increased voter turnout,” she said.
That result addresses the enfranchisement goal. The second part of the equation — election integrity — is ensured by the processes in place, O’Brien said.
“There’s never been any evidence, nationally, that there is widespread voter fraud,” she said.
She noted that in 2017, there were three cases of suspected voter fraud in Colorado — instances where a single voter turned in more than one ballot. The state’s election system is set up to alert clerks’ offices when that happens.
“If there is an impropriety, it is turned over to the district attorney and the people involved are charged with voter fraud,” O’Brien said.
What’s more, O’Brien noted Colorado recently participated in a five-state election integrity study. That effort involved studying more than 11 million votes that were cast in 2016. Of that number, 112 were identified as suspect. That translates into .001 percent of the votes cast.
Additionally, beginning in 2016, Colorado became the first state to institute post-election voting audits to ensure that ballots were properly tabulated. That process mandated that clerks keep physical ballots, bundled in groups of 25 and organized by number with no voter identification information attached, for verification. A random number of ballots were than pulled and checked against the official tabulation.
“Eagle County passed with zero discrepancies. We were very proud of that,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien has a response for people who have concerns about election fraud — she invites them to get involved. From poll watching to serving as an election judge, there are many opportunities to observe or assist with elections, O’Brien said.
“Our election judges see firsthand the integrity of the process,” she said.
Election judges are paid, part-time workers who assist with ballot tabulation. During the precinct caucuses, planned Tuesday, March 6, party members can indicate their desire to serve, and those lists are then sent to the clerk’s office.
Judges work in two-person teams — a Democrat and a Republican — to ensure process integrity, and that includes everything from verifying voter signatures to collecting ballots from 24-hour drop boxes.
Beyond the human checks and balances, O’Brien noted that drop boxes and ballots are kept under tight physical controls and video surveillance.
As we count down to November, O’Brien knows a busy year awaits.
“The whole election season, for us, is fun. We love to administer elections,” she said.
And if that wasn’t enough to keep her office staff busy, O’Brien is also looking at a big upgrade this year.
“We have a new motor vehicle registration system that rolls out in August,” O’Brien said. “So we have titled 2018 as our year of adventure.”