- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

DENVER (AP) - Colorado’s secretary of state’s office announced changes in its petition verification process Thursday after it took more than a month for top officials to learn that employees had discussed concerns about possibly fraudulent petition signatures for U.S. Senate candidate Jon Keyser.

State elections director Judd Choate said the employees were alerted to suspect signatures by a contractor on April 14 but decided there wasn’t enough evidence to investigate. They weren’t required to report those suspicions to their managers, but going forward they will do so in similar incidents, Choate said.

“That was a failing on my part. We have made that correction,” he said.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams didn’t learn about the employees’ concerns until Tuesday. He immediately referred the matter to a Denver prosecutor who is investigating whether the circulator who turned in the signatures committed fraud. His office also alerted Keyser’s campaign.

KMGH-TV reported May 10 it had uncovered 10 - now 13 - forged signatures. Keyser repeatedly deflected questions about the report before blaming a circulator working for a canvassing firm hired by his campaign.

“We found out about the signatures through media reports at the same time as everyone else,” said Keyser spokesman Matt Connelly.

By law, state elections officials cannot compare petition signatures with those in state records, Choate said. They can only verify whether signatures belong to registered voters. He said Williams will consider that and other changes, including prohibiting circulators from being paid per signature, another area of concern.

The circulator under investigation was not paid by the hour. But a recent law banning the practice was struck down in court.

The circulator also turned in the signature of a dead voter. While that signature was properly rejected at the time, Choate said elections workers will check a constantly updated databank to ensure such signatures are detected.

Officials also are checking to see if the circulator worked on other campaigns. She did work for a state Senate candidate but the number of signatures she collected wouldn’t have affected the candidate’s qualifying.

Keyser, Blaha, Frazier and Jack Graham chose to petition their way to the primary by collecting at least 1,500 voter signatures from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. Darryl Glenn was voted into the primary at the Colorado GOP’s state convention in March.

The winner of the June 28 primary will take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in November.

Williams certified that Keyser qualified under court order. He cannot disqualify Keyser by law.

Timing is critical in verifying candidate and issue petitions, Choate said. He said elections officials at the time had 25 days to review 100,000 signatures turned in by Keyser’s campaign and still had to review petitions submitted by GOP Senate hopefuls Robert Blaha and Ryan Frazier - plus state legislative petitions.

“Potentially this summer, when (November ballot) initiatives are submitted, we will have as many as 900,000 signatures to do in 30 days. We’d need a statutory change to extend the period of time,” Choate said.

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