Clerk, AG prepared for poll watchers

Montrose County Clerk and Recorder Tressa Guynes addresses Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (not shown) during a Monday discussion. From left, seated, are Doug Hanshaw, problem solving court coordinator, and Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall. Standing in background is 7th Judicial District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller.

Montrose County’s election process is fully transparent, Clerk and Recorder Tressa Guynes said, responding to concerns some have raised over poll watchers and electioneering to close to voting sites.

“It’s continuing to be a hot topic,” even though issues with poll watchers have not arisen locally, Guynes told the Montrose Daily Press Monday.

Legitimate poll watchers are appointed by a political candidate or group in support of or opposition to an issue up for vote. They watch the processes at the county clerk’s election division on Election Day to ensure everything is being done properly. Poll watchers are not the same as county election judges or bipartisan teams of two that observe ballot-counting.

“There are strict guidelines they have to comply with,” Guynes said. “They have to be officially appointed. They have to go through training. We prefer they let us know in advance and give us their certificate, and we can complete all the paperwork,” she said.

“We’re transparent. I always welcome people to come watch.”

In Colorado, the official function is to have a member of each party watch counties count their ballots, Attorney General Phil Weiser said, later on Monday, during a brief meeting with local officials.

Montrose and other counties have always had these bipartisan watch teams in place.

If other people show up wanting to conduct another kind of watch, it is incumbent on them not to engage in illegal activity, such as intimidating people from voting, or at a polling site pressuring them to vote a certain way, Weiser told the Daily Press. Again, these poll watchers have to be appointed, trained and certified, as the clerk explained.

“We’re alert to any possibility and if we hear of any conduct that crosses the line, we will work with law enforcement to address it,” Weiser said.

Neither poll watchers nor anyone else can interfere with an election, or obstruct people from voting, Guynes said.

She had no local reports of active interference and said election judges are trained to keep an eye out for suspect behavior, which would be easily spotted in a small voter service information center like the historic Montrose County courthouse. Guynes said she intends to have sheriff’s deputies handy to deal with problems or complaints that rise to the level of law enforcement action.

“We are prepared for it (intimidation),” but not worried, the clerk said.

“We know the guidelines. Our election judges know how to address that kind of thing and go up and say ‘You aren’t allowed.’”

Electioneering — conduct designed to promote or advocate against a specific item or person up for vote — is not allowed within a 100-foot radius of a polling site. That means that among other conduct, people cannot hand out campaign literature, carry banners specifically referencing a candidate or issue, display buttons, or wear shirts with those specific messages.

“We will address it as we see it,” Guynes said, referring to problems that might arise. “The sheriff’s office has agreed to be onsite Monday (Nov. 2) and Tuesday (Nov. 3), Election Day.”

The clerk’s office sought guidance as to what political messaging is allowable. “We know the obvious. We know someone can’t come in here with (a candidate’s name) on their hat or T-shirt. But what about the inferred — like Black Lives Matter or MAGA hats, something that is generally associated to a candidate or something on the ballot?” she said.

With guidance from Weiser’s office, the Secretary of State determined that, under the definition in law, “electioneering” applies to something or someone specifically on the ballot — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden; Colorado’s Proposition 115, etc. Under that reading, Black Lives Matter or MAGA material are permissible at the polls, because these are not specifically on the ballot. By contrast, both “Republican” and “Democrat” are, so anything bearing those words would not be allowed within the 100-foot radius of the polls.

The honorable display of the American flag is allowed, too, because it does not refer to a specific ballot measure, candidate or party.

Electioneering and specific advocacy outside of the 100-foot radius is protected by the First Amendment, the same as any other speech. Harassment, related to politics or not, is illegal, and may result in law enforcement or prosecutorial action.

When electioneering crosses into intimidation, that is when it is a problem, Weiser said.

“Be a person. Respect other people and recognize that democracy depends on giving everyone a free and full opportunity to cast a ballot as they see fit,” he said.

County poll workers should contact law enforcement if they observe suspicious conduct at the polls, he told Guynes.

“We’re living in a time when trust in our institutions is being taxed and tested like never before,” Weiser said.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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