Elections
6:00 am
Thu May 22, 2014

Special District Elections: The "Wild West" Of Voting

Several special district elections were held in the Roaring Fork Valley this spring. These kinds of "taxing" districts are mostly unique to Colorado, California and Oregon.
Credit Creative Commons/Flickr/Vox Efx

A handful of special district elections wrapped up earlier this month with voters casting ballots up and down the valley for board members. Turns out, the way these elections are run has been a point of contention over the years at the State Capitol. Unlike County and State elections, these local elections are subject to fewer rules. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Prior to the election on May 6th to fill three open seats on the board of directors for a park district in the Mid-Valley, there were complaints. Then-candidate Katie Schwoerer echoed concerns from other residents. She said the way the election was structured - with one polling place and no mail ballots - made it difficult to vote.

"You know, there’s been a lot of conversation about the ballots and that it wasn’t a mail-in ballot and you know, that would be something I’d work on on the board is having more accessibility from the public for the next election in two years, to make sure we correct all the confusion that’s happened with this particular election."

Schwoerer was elected to the board for the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District. The district is big, stretching from Old Snowmass to El Jebel and up the Frying Pan. Some voters said a lone polling place was tough to get to.

"Unfortunately that is a concern that our office hears fairly regularly during special district election season," says Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.

His office helps with special district elections but, it’s the job of a an employee at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to collect election results from districts across the state.

Coolidge says fewer rules apply to special district elections than state or county elections. For example, certified voting machines must be used at the state and county level but, such hardware isn’t required for special districts. And, special districts don’t always coordinate with a county clerk to run the elections. Coolidge says they may use a law firm or district employee instead.

Reporter: "So, it’s a little like the Wild West for these special district elections." Coolidge: "The Wild West with mail ballots."

But the independence these elections have, like their right to design and run their own elections, is something their supporters have fought for. And, the idea could go back to the area’s roots in an era of self-determination during Colorado’s mining days.

Special districts started in the late 1800s, during Colorado's mining days. There were not services for water, sanitation and fire, so the miners and those that worked with the miners taxed themselves to provide those services," says Ann Terry.

She's the director of the Special District Association of Colorado. Through the years, she says special districts have become more structured. Now, 2200 of them exist, from water and fire to hospital and parks districts.

It’s common to see proposed reform to special district elections, and elections in general, at the state legislature. This legislative session, the Special District Association backed an update of the code for special district elections.

Terry says most important to the Association is to keep polling places an option as mail ballots become more common. That, and keeping elections for board members in May.

"We don’t want to see that happen in November because the November ballots are rather lengthy and we don’t want to lose the identity or attention of the voter by having just mail in ballots in November," says Terry.

When policy changes come down, it can be difficult for special districts to enact them because of cost. Rich Coolidge at the Secretary of State’s office says it’s not uncommon to see these elections canceled.

In the Roaring Fork Valley, cost was a factor in the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District choosing to hold a polling place election. A mail-ballot option would have been at least $15,000 more expensive, according to district officials. And, even though there were complaints, they say holding voting at the park exposed many people to the area who hadn’t been there before.