One key role of the press is to serve as the eyes and ears of the public at open meetings.
After all, most folks have jobs and families and better things to do than sit through a boring county commissioners hearing or city council study session. So we reporters do it for them, and then share the items we think would be interesting or important to the public.
Sometimes, public officials try to keep the media out of meetings, or censor information in other ways.
About 17 years ago, in my first journalism job at a small weekly newspaper in Clear Creek County, a judge tried to tell me I couldn’t report what went on at a preliminary hearing for a murder trial. He even went so far as threatening me with jail if my paper printed the details of the public proceeding — even though he didn’t put the same gag order on the other members of the public who attended. (Of course, back then, those members of the public didn’t have Facebook, Twitter and other modern methods of mass communication that could have really compromised the suspects’ ability to get a fair trial.) We ended up publishing a story anyway, and the judge backed down after it was pointed out to him that if he was worried about pretrial publicity tainting the jury pool, he had to try other methods — like moving the trial — before gagging the press.
But it’s rather unusual for public officials to allow the media into a meeting and not the public.
So that’s what compelled me to show up at what would otherwise be an incredibly boring proceeding: a Boulder County canvass board meeting. Turns out, our local election officials are asserting that meetings of the canvass board (two members appointed by each major party plus the clerk and recorder, who certify the results of the election) are not open to the public. But “media observers” like myself are welcome to attend and, curiously, free to spread every excruciating detail of the vote-checking process far and wide, to many more people than would have actually attended the meetings had they been open.
The closure of the meetings (except to media observers and certified “watchers”) is the latest in a series of what election integrity activists have labeled as less-than-transparent approaches employed this election season by Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall and her staff.
My interest was piqued by the fact that trusted media law expert and Colorado Press Association attorney Steven Zansberg of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz disagrees with the county’s position that the canvass board’s meetings are not open to the public. He says that despite the fact that the board has no decision-making power and includes only one public official (Hall), it qualifies as a “formally constituted body” of a political subdivision of the state, like an advisory committee, and is subject to the Colorado Open Meetings Law, the “Sunshine” law.
Since there seemed to be a genuine debate about the matter, I decided to show up to the Nov. 16 canvass board meeting, not wearing my reporter’s hat, but in my capacity as a member of the public, just to see what would happen. I fell in line behind the canvass board members as they were led to the inner sanctum of the ballot processing center on 33rd Street in Boulder, but on the way in, election official Mary Beth Schuh noticed that I wasn’t wearing a badge on a lanyard like the others, and she asked who I was. When I replied that I was a member of the public, she stopped me from entering. Deputy Clerk Molly Tayer was on our heels, and when I told her my first name, she seemed to recall that I had been invited as a media observer, so she escorted me back up to the front desk so that I could get the proper credentials. I wasn’t allowed to attend in my capacity as a member of the public, only as a media observer. Another woman, Margit Johansson, also tried to get access to the meeting as a member of the public, but was denied entry until she acknowledged that she was a certified watcher and obtained her own card-on-a-lanyard.
Bearing the proper identification, we were led into a secure area with alarm-equipped doors, and we joined the canvass board members as Hall and other election officials led them through the audit process, in which a batch of ballots are re-scanned to verify that the equipment was tallying votes correctly.
At one point, I fired up the video camera on my smartphone and was admonished; later I tried to use my phone to look up directions to my next appointment and I thought Schuh was going to confiscate it. One watcher violated the rules by bringing in a closed tumbler of coffee.
In theory we were there to observe the process, but we were made to stand at a doorway about 25 feet away from where the canvass board was interacting with Hall, so we could neither hear nor see much at all. When we pointed out that we couldn’t properly observe the proceedings, Tayer assured us that the distance between us was policy, and besides, it was just a tour, not part of the formal meeting. Hall replied, “I’m sorry, I’m talking as loud as I can.” Luckily, a couple of canvass board members came over periodically to let us see the materials they were examining.
At least we were able to ask Tayer a few questions while the canvass board did whatever it was doing. Tayer confirmed that people like BW Editor Joel Dyer who blacked out the bar codes on their mail ballots — after serial numbers in some counties were traced to individual voters — still had their votes counted. Tayer said votes on ballots with blacked-out codes were simply transferred to new ballots with different codes.
I had to leave after about an hour, and I escaped with my illicitly obtained video footage. Just on principle, we’ll put that scintillating clip of Schuh asking me for my media credentials on the BW website so that you, too, can see what excitement you missed when you were excluded from monitoring the public’s business.
Hey, I realize that security measures must be put in place at ballot-counting facilities to ensure the integrity of the election and preserve the confidentiality of voter identities. But we should also have assurances that the election workers — the government itself — is playing by the book.
Hopefully, by the time the next election rolls around, our state legislators will have cleared up some of this silliness so that we can have the utmost confidence in the transparency of the process in which our representatives are elected, while protecting the anonymity of voters, as our forefathers intended.
Next time, I hope I don’t need my reporter’s hat to assure myself of that.
And you shouldn’t need one either.