I’ll admit it: Every time I see a ballot with an endless list of judges on it, I’m a bit dumbfounded. You may be the same way: You know who’s running for governor and senator, but…judges? And what the heck is a CU Regent, and why do we vote for them? What’s an election watcher? Do caucuses still exist?

Read on for the answers to our most burning questions about the upcoming November election (that you may have been a little too embarrassed to ask).

What is a caucus, and how is it different from a primary?

You probably already know what the primaries are, but here’s a quick refresher: Colorado holds an official primary vote in June of an election year, where voters who are registered with a political party get to choose the candidate they want to represent their party in the general elections. Independent voters receive both the Republican and Democratic tickets and can vote for one or the other, but not both. 

Caucuses are hosted by each political party and occur before the primaries. At caucuses, registered party members select who they want to appear on the primary ballot. Multiple caucuses take place at the precinct level in Colorado (more than 3,000, in fact), at which party members elect committee members who in turn help decide which candidates will be on the primary ballot. 

What’s the deal with all of the judges?

Colorado is one of six states that only holds retention elections for judges, meaning that voters don’t elect new judges. Instead, whenever there’s a vacancy, a judicial nominating commission sends two or three qualified candidates to the governor, who then makes the final hiring decision.

After new judges go through a two-year provisional period, their names land on the ballot for retention. It’s then up to voters to decide whether or not that judge should be retained. If voters choose to keep one around, that judge will land a fixed term, which varies. Once that fixed term is up, the judge’s name appears on the ballot for retention again. Judges can serve an unlimited number of terms until they must retire at age 72. 

So how do you know if you should vote to retain certain judges or give them the boot? The Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation sends regular surveys to attorneys, jury members, court staff, and citizens who report on the judge’s performance throughout the cases they oversee. Each judge is also evaluated by a formal Judicial Performance Commission, which uses survey results and interviews. The results of the evaluations are published for voters to review in order to make their decisions

How does the Board of Education work?

The Colorado State Board of Education is an elected board that decides on matters regarding the state’s K–12 public education system. The board is made up of nine members: eight from each of Colorado’s eight congressional districts, and one from the state at-large. But you won’t see all nine spots up for grabs every election year because elections to the board are staggered.

This year, voters will be able to choose the at-large seat and board members from districts 5, 6, and 8. Currently, four candidates (from the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Unity parties) are on the ballot for the at-large seat. There is a complete list of the candidates running for the Colorado State Board of Education, along with their respective campaign webpages, right now.

Why are we voting for the CU Regent?

Colorado’s state university system, the aptly named University of Colorado, consists of four campuses (Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and the Anschutz Medical Campus). The University of Colorado Board of Regents has nine members, eight from each of Colorado’s eight congressional districts and one who is elected at-large.

Like the state’s board of education, the board of regents is elected on a staggered basis. This year, seats from congressional districts 1, 4, 5, and 8 are up for grabs. Together, the regents oversee the University of Colorado’s budget and tuition rates and hire top officials, including the university president. Find a full list of candidates in the running for the Board of Regents online.

My ballot has the Regional Transportation District on it—what does that mean?

Much like public K–12 education and the University of Colorado, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) is governed by a 15-seat board of directors who are all publicly elected. Because elections are staggered, and RTD directors only represent the metro area, you won’t see this question on your ballot if you live in a district that’s not voting this year, or if you live in say, Durango.

Like other boards, the RTD Board of Directors is responsible for hiring top RTD officials, overseeing finances, and governing the agency’s policies. This year, candidates hoping to represent RTD’s districts B, C, I, J, K, L, N, and O will be on the ballot. You can find which district represents you by taking a look at the RTD director district map, and you can learn more about the candidates through the Colorado Secretary of State’s website.

What’s an election watcher, and how do I become one?

An election watcher is an eligible Colorado voter whose job is to witness the conduct of an election and report any unauthorized activity to a supervisor. For instance, say someone is standing outside a polling location harassing prospective voters about a particular candidate: Election watchers must step in and report that crime to maintain the legitimacy of the election.

Election watchers must be appointed by an authorized entity, such as by a candidate, political party, or issue committee. Once you’re appointed, you must submit a certificate of appointment to the county where you’ll be election-watching, and you’ll take an oath to not disclose any voter information. Election watchers who have taken a “watcher-training course” are able to witness more election activities, like voter check-in and registration, than watchers who have not. 

You can also become an election worker by applying on your county’s website. Election workers receive a stipend (which varies by county) and must attend an election judge class where they are briefed on the job’s duties and restrictions before working. There are two important caveats to eligibility: You won’t be allowed to be an election worker if you’ve ever been convicted of election fraud or if you’re related by blood or marriage to a candidate on the ballot.

So, when will I actually receive my ballot, and where can I turn it in?

First, make sure you’re registered to vote by checking the Colorado Secretary of State’s online “Find my voter registration” tool. If you’re registered, you should receive your ballot in the mail around three weeks before election day. Once you’ve filled out your ballot, you can return it by mail or drop it off at a 24-hour drop box. You can also vote in person at a voting center. Check with your county for a complete list of ballot drop-off locations and voting centers, or check the City and County of Denver’s online map.

Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and 5280.com.