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How Colorado became the model for running an election by mail

By Bill Theobald, The Fulcrum on

Published in News & Features

All across the country, the consistent theme of this presidential year has been turmoil.

A confusingly huge field of candidates vying to take on a norm-busting incumbent was just the start. The normally boring rules for conducting elections have been in high-profile upheaval since the coronavirus outbreak took hold in the spring, as most states grappled with how to steer voting away from polling places and got whipsawed between claims of voter suppression by Democrats and allegations of voter fraud by Republicans.

But in the eye of the tempest has been this rare note of agreement: When it comes to running a fair, efficient and calm election that's reliant on mail ballots, the place to look for guidance is Colorado.

Its politics remain just purple enough to assure plenty of bare-knuckle battling for the slightest electoral advantage. But the centerpiece of the Rocky Mountain region has still emerged as a national model — during the pandemic and beyond — for states looking to mostly remote elections as a way to produce routinely high turnout and consistently low levels of dispute after even the closest contests.

With less than two weeks before Election Day, the state's system has been operating nearly flawlessly so far, the fourth time it's been deployed for a federal election. More than 4 million voting packets started arriving in Colorado mailboxes two weekends ago, and on Monday tabulating got started on the record-smashing 638,000 ballots returned so far — almost a quarter of the statewide total four years ago. Nearly complete returns are highly likely to be reported quickly the night of Nov. 3, after the polls close for the 6% of the state that still votes in person.

Colorado was not the first state to switch to almost all vote-by-mail elections (that was Oregon, in 2000) and it was not the most populous to do so before this year's pandemic (that's Washington). But the state's top election's official, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, does not shy away from boasting that her system is best.

 

"Colorado is the gold standard for the nation," Griswold, a Democrat, said during a virtual election seminar last month. The same claim has been used at least nine times this year in news releases on the office's website.

But it was not always this way, in anybody's eyes. And how it reached its current elite status is a tale of careful legislating and rulemaking; the building of bipartisan trust and pride of ownership among local election officials and the public; and continuous improvement in the mechanics of elections in response to the needs of voters.

REACTION TO TROUBLED HISTORY

Fifteen years ago, the headlines about Colorado elections focused on all the allegations of fraud the previous fall, when the top of the ballot featured intensely contested races for president (President George W. Bush narrowly turned the state red) and senator (Ken Salazar just as narrowly secured an open seat for the Democrats.)

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