Three candidates want to be Denver’s next clerk and recorder — and just the third person elected to the role

It’s an election for the person who oversees elections.
8 min. read
Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson shakes a bingo mixer as Denver Elections holds a lottery to determine candidate order on the upcoming municipal election ballots, March 14, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Clerk and Recorder's office process and stores a lot of paperwork. We're talking millions of documents.

Running that office is a position outgoing Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson said is more administerial than most other elected positions. You also occasionally do get to shake-up a shiny, bingo-wheel thing to help determine ballot orders. (No word on whether the patriotic-as-hell jacket is required.)

"I think the most important part is we're able to find paperwork when someone asks for it," Johnson said recently.

The office oversees elections, issues marriage licenses and other records, and serves as a public trustee for the city. This means it's responsible for hosting online auctions for homes in the process of foreclosure, but also gets to host Valentine Days events for folks tying the knot. (87 couples did it this year. Last year, Johnson said there were more than 8,000 in the entire year -- a record).

"That means a lot of traffic in our offices, of couples coming in and getting their licenses," Johnson said.

Stephanie Martinez organizes ballots inside Denver Elections Division's downtown headquarters, Oct. 31, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There are three candidates hoping to replace Johnson, who announced in 2017 she wasn't going to seek reelection this year. Councilman Paul López, Sarah O. McCarthy and Peg Perl are all hoping to be just the third person elected to the office. Denver voters decided in 2007 to make the position an elected one rather than an appointed one.

What advice does Johnson have for the candidates on day one? "Listen to the staff. I think the staff here is awesome and they are the subject matter experts."

Sarah O. McCarthy

McCarthy has done a bit of everything. She calls herself a "recovering bureaucrat" who has experience working in all three major branches of government. She's worked as a court administrator and as policy and budget analyst for the state. She's interned in Congress and worked for former Gov. Dick Lamm and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. She's most recently been in involved in historic preservation, working as a consultant.

She's run for the position before, losing to Johnson in the 2011 runoff election.

Denver Clerk and Recorder candidate Sarah O. McCarthy poses for a portrait at a neighborhood meeting in Overland, Feb. 28, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She will look to keep the office nonpartisan, and she believes the clerk and recorder position requires someone with experience in administrative positions, which she believes she has.

"I have a broad background that applies to the different areas in which the clerk's office is responsible," McCarthy said in a phone interview with Denverite this week. She believes she can be trusted with the sensitive public records the office oversees. "I do have the professional background to do the tasks that are performed (by the office)."

McCarthy said it was "vitally important" to implement Denver's new public funding system, which voters passed last year. She said it needs to have "integrity" and "honor the voter's wishes."

"(A) top priority would be fair election funds," McCarthy said.

One thing she's hoping to look at if elected would be expanding how Denver residents vote. She said this could potentially mean expanding online voting and ensuring residents who are differently abled or do not have direct access to certain voting methods can still get a chance to vote. This could even include exploring the possibility of a voting app.

Paul López

The current District 3 councilman is term-limited, but he's hoping to stick around city hall. He told Denverite last year his run has everything to do with seeing the city continue to thrive. While he mentioned some of his accomplishments in Denver's west side, he wants to focus on voter engagement as clerk and recorder.

"If you don't have high voter propensity, chances are you're not going to get that asphalt, right?" López told Denverite last year. "Chances are, you don't have that grocery store in the neighborhood. Chances are your quality of life and the longevity of your life is less than other precincts that turnout high."

City Councilman Paul López claps as Denver Elections holds a lottery to determine candidate order on the ballot for Clerk and Recorder in the upcoming municipal election, March 14, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

So empowering more Denver voters will be among his biggest goals. It doesn't just mean getting people to the polls, but getting people more civically engaged. He cited former Denver Clerk and Recorder Stephanie Y. O'Malley for helping put the city in a position where "it leads in technology and policy, as well as accessibility."

While Denver usually has pretty good voter turnout, López said there are "plenty of other precincts" and neighborhoods usually home to people of color or working-class people who do not turn out as highly as other neighborhoods. It includes his home district, which during the 2015 municipal election had among the lowest turnout figures in the city.

"We can't pat ourselves in the back when there is such disparity in the city," López said this week. He wants to push to make precincts more reflective of the neighborhood instead of adhering to previous boundaries that he said are remnants of redlining.

To improve voter turnout, he wants to increase the number of 24-hour drop boxes in the city. But in addition to the public spaces they're currently in, he wants to include them in areas like grocery stores, carnicerias, cafés.

"They should be in common areas," he said.

It's part of an overarching goal to change the perception of voting in areas with low turnout.

"At my very core, I'm an organizer," López said. It's why he's hoping to push for a Denver Elections office that has people on the streets, with boots on the ground, pushing for voter engagement and participation. This would likely require a budget request to fund the additional work, but he said it's a task he's "uniquely" qualified to do as a former councilman. He said he's had to fight for basic necessities in his district before, so this wouldn't be any different.

Peg Perl

An attorney by trade, Perl previously worked in political and campaign finance consulting and in the U.S. House Ethics Committee. She's excited to potentially use some of the new tools voters granted the clerk's office following last year's election.

For one thing, if she's elected she will get a chance to appoint new positions and oversee a public funding program for the city's municipal election that would be available for 2020 candidates. She believes the measure will help bring some added transparency to campaign financing.

Denver Clerk and Recorder candidate Peg Perl poses for a portrait outside the Wellington Webb Municipal Building, Dec. 4, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She believes her work at the federal level -- making recommendations on campaign finance regulations, advising on compliance for certain programs -- is part of what her responsibilities at the city and county level will include. She's worked at the state level as well on issues she believes are pertinent to local races.

Perl helped write the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013, which among its provisions includes mandating mail ballots for registered voters. The law leaves it up to counties to decided whether to implement the law locally. (Denver has mail ballots in addition to in-person voting). She's also advocated for laws that cap fees for public records requests and improve access to digital records.

That last part is another aspect of the kind of prior work she hopes to bring to her future job. She wants to centralize all public records to make it easier for residents to look at things like financial disclosure forms. As it stands, Perl said people usually need to go to four different websites to find four different kinds of public records. She wants to make that process more cohesive, allowing easier access she thinks could lead to more people accessing the information.

She wants to improve voter engagement by giving people more access to voting centers and drop boxes. She wants to make sure that voting centers and drop boxes are put in places that are "reflective of people's commuting patterns."
"You don't want a voting center or a drop box in a place where nobody is going to use it," Perl said. "We want to make sure that neighborhoods do have a place that is convenient and welcoming for them to go to vote."

Who has money?

According to the latest available finance figures, López's campaign has raised the most money out of the three candidates, bringing in $85,968.62.

Perl campaign has raised $41,409.73 during this election cycle.

McCarthy's campaign has raised $2,015 during this election cycle.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the number of marriage licenses the clerk and recorder's office handed out in 2018.  

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