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What election?

Caramie Schnell and Tamara Miller

The goal was simple: walk around, find 10 random people and ask them relatively simple questions about the upcoming state and county elections. Gauge interest, as well as general knowledge, about politics.

Curt Austin, 31, the dark-haired guy behind the counter at Loaded Joe’s coffeeshop in Avon set the adventure’s tone immediately.

“Name the two major candidates for governor and their party affiliation,” was the question.

“No idea, to be honest,” Austin replied.

O.K., no worries, on to the next question.

“How about the three county commissioner candidates?”

“Does Larry, Moe and Curly ring a bell?” he asks.

The next three questions – about home rule, state referendums, and the county coroner seat – garnered similar responses. Austin guessed the last time he voted was in 1998 and said he didn’t plan to vote in the upcoming election.

“I read a book called ‘Civil Disobedience’ by Henry David Thoreau,” he smiled. “If you want to know more about my answers, read it for yourself.”

Eagle County is hosting the longest ballot its had in decades -14 statewide ballot questions, a gubernatorial race and a county commissioner race, just to name a few – and very few people seem to know much about it. Or even care about the election.

In fact, of the 10 residents who were questioned about the gubernatorial candidates, only three people were able to name at least one of them. (See sidebar for the questions and answers.)

Voter apathy in the U.S. is the rule, not the exception, said Kenneth Bickers, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Sometimes voters lack the information to get passionate about an issue or a candidate. Other times, the questions on the ballot just aren’t that important to the majority of voters.

“(The questions) are there because minorities can get them there and minorities care about these issues,” he said. “For example, the two issues on homosexual unions or marriage, that’s an issue that is clearly important to some voters, but is not an issue that the majority of voters spend a lot of time worrying about.”

However, Colorado political-watchers admit surprise that this election season has been so, well, boring. Even Boulderites, who are arguably the state’s most politically active residents, have been fairly quiet.

“It’s a mystery to me,” said Dr. Michael Kanner, a political science professor at CU. “In an off-year election when there is not a presidential race, a gubernatorial race is usually enough.”

A couple sipping lattes at Loaded Joe’s agreed to take our quiz. But when asked the governor question, Scott Plumb didn’t seem immediately enthusiastic.

“Oh great,” said the Edwards resident as he realized the political angle to the survey. “Ummm, Bob Beauprez. And Bill somebody. Ritter, that’s it. Bill Ritter.”

And though Plumb even nailed who swings R and who swings D, he admitted he wasn’t sure about who the county commissioner candidates are, what would change if the county goes for home rule or what state referendums are on the ballot this year.

As for the last question – is the county coroner an elected or appointed position – Plumb goes with “I believe it’s appointed.”

But just because Plumb can’t answer the questions right now doesn’t mean he won’t be able to come Nov. 7.

“I usually don’t read the Bluebook until the end of October or so,” Plumb said. “I do plan to vote – I just sent in my absentee ballot application.”

Kristine Jagoe also planned to vote, even though she could only name one of the governor candidates – Ritter – and mistakenly thought he was a Republican.

“This is really bad,” Jagoe said. She and her daughter were relaxing with another mom-and-daughter duo outside The Bookworm in Edwards. While Jagoe correctly answered that the county commission would be expanded to five members if voters approved the home rule question, she couldn’t name any of the county commission candidates.

“I have my Bluebook at home,” she said. “I always read it before the election.”

Voters can bring their Bluebook – which is a guide to the November election and is sent out to every Colorado household – or any other cheat sheet into the election box with them, said Clerk and Recorder Teak Simonton (who also is up for re-election, in case you didn’t know). Her office has been practicing voting all week to see how long it will take voters to wade through the lengthy ballot. The verdict? It will take about 10 minutes to get through all the questions on the electronic voting machines.

“That’s the reason we are having a back-up paper system, so if there is a back-up, a line … we’ll have a supplemental method,” she said.

Those who don’t want to risk a wait on Nov. 7 can vote early at the Eagle County Building, 500 Broadway in Eagle, from Oct. 23 – Nov. 3.

At Finnegan’s Wake, Ray Knipmeyer, 33, gladly agreed to take the survey, though he gave only one answer for all five questions.

“There are two things you don’t talk about in a pub – religion and politics,” he said.

And so it goes.

Maggie Parker, 48, and Sven Stevenson, 26, turned their stools away from the bar at Finnegan’s to help. Parker didn’t know the answer to any of the questions but she said she does plan on voting. Stevenson, however, named the two governor candidates right off the bat but said he had “no clue” about the county commissioner candidates, didn’t know what home rule was, named decriminalization of marijuana and child abuse laws as two of the state ballot issues and said the county coroner was an appointed, rather than an elected, position -“isn’t it the good ol’ boys system?” he said, laughing.

There is no child abuse question on the ballot, by the way.

Tom Potts, 30, has only voted once in his adult life – in 2000 – and that was to vote against now-President George Bush. His lunch companion, Kelli Ashcraft, has never voted.

“It’s not that I’m against it, I just never have,” she said.

The two, who were dining al fresco at Sato’s in Edwards, failed to answer most of the survey questions correctly. But both correctly named legalization of marijuana possession as one of the questions that voters will consider this year.

“Politics is not a big thing up here to people,” Potts said. “Well, to some people, but not to me.”

Maybe Potts is on to something. Of the 17 people surveyed for this article, five declined to answer the questions, saying they either had no plans to vote or didn’t know anything about politics. One agreed to answer questions but didn’t want her name used for fear of embarrassment. (She did say she always reads her Colorado Bluebook the week before the election and she plans to vote.) Out of the 10 who answered questions on the record, two knew the major governor candidates, one knew the name of one, and the rest knew none. Four knew of Amendment 44, which would decriminalize marijuana. Only one person – Potts – knew that the county coroner was an elected position. Not one person correctly named a county commissioner candidate. VT

E-mail comments about this story to cschnell@vailtrail.com or tmiller@vailtrail.com.


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