Arapahoe County clerk vows reviews after criticism

Joan Lopez drew heat amid inquiries about ballot counting, fairness

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Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez vowed to review her office's processes and procedures after drawing criticism for ballot-processing times in the Nov. 5 election.

“We recognize that there has been frustration with the time it has taken to process all the ballots,” a statement attributed to Lopez, sent on Nov. 8, reads in part. “Once the 2019 election is complete, we will review our processes and procedures with all of the County's relevant stakeholders. My staff and I are fully dedicated to conducting fair and transparent elections that ensure all Arapahoe County voices are heard, and we will continue honing and improving our operations as needed."

The statement cited “record-breaking turnout for an off-year contest,” saying the election saw 42% voter turnout and nearly 60% of ballots returned on election day. A correction sent out the next day said 60% of ballots were actually returned in the final two days of the election.

The statement followed a flurry of attention on Lopez, a Democrat, after a 9News reporter asked her how she could assure Republicans that the election process would be handled in a bipartisan manner.

“I think it is very partisan right now as far as the political climate,” Lopez responded. “I don't know how to answer that.”

In an interview with Colorado Community Media days later, Lopez said she fumbled the answer because of how “taken aback” she was at the reporter's question.

“I had just finished giving that reporter a tour of the process and showing the bipartisan teams on every detail,” Lopez said. “Are you kidding me? My staff is fully dedicated to a fair process. I thought it was an odd question.”

Lopez defended the amount of time it took to count ballots, saying that her own election in 2018, in which she narrowly defeated incumbent Matt Crane, was not called until several days after the election.

The situation drew the attention of Secretary of State Jena Griswold, whose office sent observers to Arapahoe County's ballot-processing facility.

“The secretary was aware that people in the community were concerned,” said Serena Woods, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State's office. “We sent staff members to reassure voters.”

The two observers reported no irregularities in tabulation, Woods said, and said the amount of time it took to count ballots was “pretty typical.” Sending observers to county election facilities isn't unusual, Woods added.

The timing of the ballot counts took on a greater significance in the days following the election as the Aurora Mayor's race drew down to a dead heat, with former Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican, just a few hundred votes ahead of candidate Omar Montgomery.

Tensions climbed even higher when officials discovered 828 replacement ballots in Denver and Arapahoe counties had not been delivered to voters until election day, despite sitting in a Postal Service warehouse for several days, Woods said.

Of the 828 ballots, Woods said, 664 included the Aurora Mayor's race. Of those 664, 141 cast a ballot.

With a margin of a little more than 200 votes in unofficial results, Coffman declared victory in the race on Nov. 14, though Montgomery had not officially conceded as of the afternoon of Nov. 15.

The swirl of criticism around Lopez follows a year in which she has drawn heat for a number of actions characterized as partisan, including endorsing Aurora City Council candidate Juan Marcano, a Democrat, and donating to his campaign. The move prompted Aurora's election commission and city council to explore running their own election, though the idea was later dropped.

Asked about the endorsement, Lopez said she didn't think her actions were “appropriate.”

“It's nothing that hasn't been done in the past, and there's nothing illegal about it,” Lopez said. “But I understand how it looks, and I've told everyone who asks about it that it won't happen again.”

Lopez also apologized on Twitter in September for a flier printed by her office, and distributed at Aurora's Global Fest celebration, that included the phrase “vote early and vote often,” a phrase generally interpreted as a joke about voter fraud.

“We apologize for any upset this may have caused!” Lopez tweeted.

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