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In the lead up to the 2020 election, Colorado’s voting system received a whole lot of praise. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and yes, even 5280 espoused the Centennial State’s practice of mailing a ballot to every single registered voter.
The plaudits were partly because the state’s voter turnout had increased seemingly every year since mail-in ballots became the norm in 2013. At the same time, instances of attempted fraud have remained nearly nonexistent. But the cheerleading was also in response to other states’ last-minute scramble to create similar vote-by-mail procedures so people could safely execute their civic duty during a pandemic.
Despite all the acclaim, there was no guarantee everything 2020 had to offer wouldn’t cause some problems for the system. In the weeks leading up to the election, it appeared likely that more people than ever would turn out to vote, meaning simple volume could wreak havoc. Republicans in Congress, as well as President Donald Trump, spent much of the year not only disparaging mail-in ballots, but also attempting to confuse voters about the vote-by-mail process. Finally, collecting and counting all the voting tickets that were sent via mail or slipped into drop boxes promised to be a logistical challenge, thanks to COVID-19-related health and safety protocols.
When all the votes were tallied, though, it turned out that Colorado did a pretty damn good job. “Colorado just simply didn’t have the problems with absentee ballots and such that other states had,” says Michael Berry, an associate professor of political science at University of Colorado Denver. “That’s largely because we had an expansive vote-by-mail apparatus that we all understood how to use.” But don’t just take Berry’s word for it. We put together a list of numbers (each was taken from preliminary data provided by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, unless otherwise noted) that show both how and why Colorado was able to pass the pandemic voting test.
Percentage of eligible adults that cast a ballot in Colorado during the November election. That represents the state’s highest turnout rate ever, up from 71.3 percent in 2016. It was also the second highest turnout of any state, behind only Minnesota (around 80 percent). The voter turnout rate for the entire country was 66.7 percent.
The number of Coloradans who had already returned their ballots two weeks prior to Election Day, according to Louisville-based research firm Magellan Strategies. In 2016, only 419,135 people had returned their tickets by that time. Ultimately, more than 3.2 million people voted in the Centennial State.
The percentage of Coloradans who submitted their ballots by mail, which includes putting them in one of the hundreds of drop boxes that were available throughout the state. In 2012, only 28 percent of Coloradans voted by mail. But thanks to the 2013 decision to send ballots to every registered voter, 93 percent of people voted by mail in 2016. Basically, we’ve voted like we were in a pandemic for an entire election cycle.
Ballots that were rejected because they didn’t meet state requirements (i.e., a signature didn’t match what was on file or proper identification wasn’t provided), according to the Colorado Sun. That means the overall rate for rejected voting tickets was about 0.9 percent, up just slightly from 0.8 percent in 2016. Signature discrepancies between what was on file with the state (they typically get that from your driver’s license) and what appeared on the ballot accounted for 85 percent of the denied ballots. Election officials suggested the jump in turnout, much of which came from younger voters, likely played a role in the tiny uptick in rejections.
People who used the state’s “Text-2-Cure” system, which was new for this election. It allowed voters the opportunity to fix many of the problems that cause ballots to be denied—penmanship issues, out-of-date identification—via, you guessed it, a secure text messaging system.
The percentage of eligible Grand County voters that cast a ballot—an impressive feat considering the East Troublesome Fire forced many residents to evacuate. Sara Rosene, the county’s clerk and recorder, even had to move out of her office during early voting because of the flames. Secretary of State Jena Griswold also noted during her press conference to certify the election results that Gunnison County had to finish counting votes while its clerk and multiple employees weren’t available to work after contracting COVID-19.
Ballot drop boxes added throughout the state for the election, bringing the total to more than 370. That meant there was one drop box for about every 9,400 active registered voters. Many of the new containers were paid for with funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Election workers hired by the Denver Elections Division for the 2020 election (only 670 people were brought on in 2016) to help with everything from collecting to processing ballots. The department added almost double the number of employees in anticipation of higher turnout and because it created 10 new voting centers for November.