How COVID-19 is reshaping a major election year

El Paso County Election Specialist Matt Dawkins runs a test batch of ballots through the vote-counting system May 28 as part of a pre-primary trial of the equipment. 

Colorado voters will soon be off to the races. 

In the midst of the U.S.’ first major pandemic in more than a century, and in the wake of a government-issued stay-at-home order, the primary election for the U.S. Senate and 4th Judicial District Attorney is scheduled for June 30. Mail-in ballots are slated to be sent early in June, and should be in mailboxes between 15 and 20 days before the primary, according to Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office.

Democrats will be asked to choose between former Gov. John Hickenlooper and prior state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. The winner will square off against incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in November, who does not face a primary challenge. 

Republicans, on the other hand, will have to pick the next district attorney from a primary that pits County Commissioner Mark Waller against Deputy DA Michael Allen. There is no Democrat running for DA, so the winner in June will take the seat. 

Both primaries should shore up the final ballot for Nov. 3, but if public health restrictions are still in place, what could that look like? 

The COVID factor

Colorado has emerged as a national leader in mail-in elections, and in 2016 the Washington Post declared the Centennial State the most secure, election-wise, in the U.S. But President Donald Trump has attacked the mail-in system, claiming, among other things, that mail ballots give Democrats an edge over Republicans and that they are bereft with fraud. 

“You can speculate in the long term, that we could see a radical change in election law across the country after this election,” said Ryan Strickland, professor of political science at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “This is the catalyst for it.”

In 2016, Colorado voters approved Proposition 107, a measure that reinstituted a state-wide primary for the presidential election but also kept primaries in place for down-ballot voting. So on March 3, aka “Super Tuesday,” the state held a presidential primary, the first of three ballots that all voters will have a chance to cast this year.

The novel coronavirus, and statewide bans on large gatherings designed to flatten the curve of its spread, has thrown a wrench in the works of many typical election-year happenings — things like voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote events, campaign rallies and in-person caucusing. 

“How are you going to get, in a sense, thousands of delegates organized to do the work of designating … candidates?” asked Rick Foster, professor of political science at Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman has been encouraging would-be electors to engage early by making sure they are registered well ahead of the ballot release. Griswold’s office maintains a digital platform that allows you to confirm your registration and update critical information, like your address, at govotecolorado.gov.

“Voters should use online services now to make sure their voter record is accurate or register to vote,” Broerman said in an April statement. “By not waiting until ballots are mailed, they will make in-person visits unnecessary.”

Colorado is one of five states that allow all residents to vote by mail. It joins Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Utah in embracing the process; and because of this, both Strickland and Foster said the state is ahead of the curve and may be better able to turn out participants in the upcoming June and November elections, regardless of whether Colorado remains under some form of social-distancing requirement. 

“In Colorado, we have mail-in voting, so we’re very well-equipped to deal with this sort of thing,” Strickland said. “It’s widely accepted by both parties in our state. It’s something that’s seen as, for the most part, legitimate and non-problematic.”

How COVID-19 is reshaping a major election year 2

(From left): Bernie Herpin and Amy Paschal, members of the El Paso County canvass board, complete test ballots during a May 28 trial of the ballot-counting equipment.

Mail-in and mayhem

Not everyone feels that way. In recent weeks, Trump has argued against the wider implementation of vote-by-mail within the U.S. and repeatedly attacked, both verbally and on social media, the legitimacy of these types of ballots. 

“Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” he said during an April 7 press briefing at the White House. “They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases.”

Here at home, County Clerk Broerman said Colorado’s system has in place a dozen years’ worth of carefully thought-out procedures and safeguards — as well as a complicated chain of custody for the ballots between voter and final count — that help ensure elections are carried out with integrity, transparency and accuracy. He spoke with the Express May 28, as election staff and canvas board members from both the Democratic and Republican parties conducted the first in a series of rigorous tests to make sure the counting machines are working correctly. 

“There are a lot of steps to make sure [ballot counting] is fair, transparent and accurate,” he said, adding that in Colorado, “It’s very easy to vote, but hard to cheat.”

Broerman said he often attends national conferences of clerks and recorders, and whenever people learn he’s from Colorado they have a very similar response. 

“I’ll get a group who come over to me and say, ‘I hear you’re from Colorado. Tell me about the great things you’re doing,’” he said. 

To up the safety ante, Secretary of State Griswold issued some emergency rules geared at protecting both voters and election personnel. The new guidelines: give voters more time to receive, complete and return their ballots than in prior years; and require all election personnel, including judges and watchers, to wear masks and personal protective equipment, and to adhere to social distancing guidelines. The guidance also: recommends temperature checks for all election personnel and observers who will be on-site for more than an hour; mandates voting machines be cleaned between each use; and allows a county clerk the leeway to close a polling center if there is a reasonable concern it may be contaminated by COVID-19, among others.

Looking ahead

While he can’t speak for the rest of the country, Broerman is confident that El Paso County and Colorado are poised to host safe, secure and accurate elections throughout 2020.

And while the political science professors wouldn’t predict the electoral outcomes, Strickland is confident Coloradans will do their part and turn out this year. 

“The states that have the strongest absentee voting laws,” he said, “tend to be the states that have the highest turn-out.”

He explained that the dual effects that vote-by-mail has on voter turnout isn’t partisan. On one hand, expanded mail-in voting boosts turnout in young voters, who typically align politically with the Democratic Party. At the same time, those ballots also increase participation from people with less college education, who tend to vote along Republican lines. 

“I think we’re going to have sky-high turnout in 2020 regardless, just with how polarized the country is,” Strickland said. “If and when states do open up absentee and mail-in voting, for this election and beyond, it will just bump up turn-out even higher.”

Southeast Express Editor Regan Foster contributed to this report.