The morning after Denver's runoff election, the two candidates for city clerk and recorder were just 253 votes apart.
The race pitted city councilman and community organizer Paul López against prominent lawyer and government ethics watchdog Peg Perl.
As of 1:50 a.m. Wednesday, with 143,773 votes counted out of 408,070 registered voters, the two candidates were closely bunched together, with López leading by a whisker, 50.09% to 49.91% for Perl.
López and Perl emerged from the first round of spring Denver municipal elections held on May 7 as the top two vote-getters for the office, with López garnering 36.9% of the vote and Perl earning 32.7%.
Since none of the candidates earned a clear majority — at least 50% of the vote — a runoff was required.
Denver’s Clerk and Recorder Office manages city elections and handles marriage licenses, foreclosures and government records, among other duties.
The city clerk earns an annual salary of $141,000 and serves four-year terms, with officials limited to three terms.
Current Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson announced in July 2018 she would not seek a third term but rather retire after 25 years of public service.
López represents Denver's District 3 on the city council but is term limited. He said in a May 21 debate that he wants to shift his government service focus to protecting Denverites’ right to vote and increasing voter turnout as clerk and recorder.
“No matter what your ZIP code is, no matter where you live, you should have access to that ballot,” López said.
He also said he wants to ensure Denverites get a fair shake during a foreclosure process.
“As the public trustee, we play the role of referee,” López said, referencing foreclosures in Denver. “I want to arm people with the information necessary so they can stay in their homes … and that they understand the process moving forward.”
And López said he wants to provide easy access to city records.
“That means online access,” he said. “And that’s all of our records, whether it be marriage licenses, whether it’s public documents, to property deeds and even public contracts.”
Perl served as policy counsel at the Federal Elections Commission, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch and advised the U.S. House Ethics Committee.
She said at the May 21 debate that she has spent her entire career fighting to make government open and accountable to all, “not just people who are already well connected.”
Perl said her career has focused on the very rights the clerk and recorder protects: “voting rights, access to public records, government ethics and campaign finance reform.”
“I’ve really dug into this work because I know it matters,” she said. “Who has access to government and who can speak in government affects the substance of government’s decisions.”
Perl, among other officials, helped push through the state’s Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act in 2013. Through the measure, mail ballots are mailed to all active voters and residents can register to vote on Election Day.
When asked during the debate whether there are areas for reform in the city’s municipal election process, López said Denver is among the best cities in the country for elections due to a modernized voting process, thanks to the current clerk and recorder and the Election Division staff.
“Our system is a model for the rest of the country,” López said.
But he said community outreach can always improve, along with voting access including more ballot drop boxes.
“We want everyone to participate,” he said.
Perl said she has spent her entire time in Denver working on the election process, both in the city and statewide.
“We have created a great system, taking some of things pioneered in Denver and building them into state law,” said Perl, who said she was part of a team of lawyers who helped write the election laws.
Perl pointed to mail ballots allowing voters to register up to election day and allowing 16-year-old residents to pre-register so once they turn 18, they start receiving ballots in the mail.
“We do need to build on these strong foundations that we’ve created across the state,” Perl said.
Building on the foundation would entail making voter registration updates easier and fielding resident input on where voting centers should be located, Perl said.
If elected to the clerk and recorder’s office, would the candidates change voter ID regulations, and how do the candidates see the current requirements?
Perl said she doesn’t anticipate altering the law; the current policy follows state law. It allows a host of identification options ranging from a driver’s license to utility bills.
“We do want to make sure that the voting process is secure and that we have proper registration and access to the voting booth, but also that it is not a barrier to entry to anyone that needs to come and vote,” she said.
In contrast, López said he opposes voter ID laws. He said the measures, especially those coming out of the previous Secretary of State’s Office, were intended to have a “chilly effect” and discourage people from the polls.
López said people shouldn’t be afraid of the polls, and that means making access easier. He used the word "broad" to characterized how the voter ID process should be.
“We want to widen folks’ ability to come and cast their ballot ... and know that it’s going to get counted,” he said.
López did agree the list of identification options through the state law is long, and that it should remain that way.
“Democracy works when everyone participates,” he said.
The Denver Election Division still was counting "a few additional ballots that will require processing later today as part of the normal post-Election Day administrative process," spokesman Alton Dillard said.
And, over the next eight days, military and overseas ballots will be counted and officials will review any ballots left unsigned or with signature issues, Dillard said.