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It’s only April and we can say with certainty that 2020 has been an unusual election year. The old adage of “politics as usual” is just not applicable in a world dominated by stay-at-home orders, high unemployment rates, economic uncertainty…well, you get the point; you’re living through it, too.
But 2020 has also been unusual because the state split the presidential primary from the state primary. Once Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump won the state’s presidential primaries on Super Tuesday (March 3), Colorado’s politicos could finally turn their full attention to local races, which include spots in the state legislature, district attorney gigs, and the U.S. Senate race.
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But just days after Super Tuesday, it was obvious that COVID-19 was going to disrupt Colorado’s daily flow. By March 10, Gov. Jared Polis had declared a state of emergency and on March 14, the state legislature adjourned—but not without passing a last-minute piece of legislation. A bipartisan effort, HB20-1359, temporarily enabled both parties to shift their assembly process into a more virtual environment, which they did with Zoom meetings, calls, and videos (in Weld County, Republicans held a drive-through caucus and assembly).
That virtual practice should come in handy on Saturday when delegates for both parties gather for what is usually one of the biggest moments in an election cycle. Normally, delegates from the earlier round of caucuses and assemblies come together for a big party with plenty of flags, signs, and talk. A rousing speech at the assembly and convention can make a candidate’s career.
That’s what happened in 2016 at the GOP’s state convention when Darryl Glenn, an El Paso County commissioner, gave an oratorical rally that inspired the crowd to vote him onto the primary ballot. He’d go on to win the primary and run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet (Glenn lost that bid).
This year—with both major parties adopting a virtual assembly and convention—won’t have that in-person, rallying moment. At least, not in the same way.
First, let’s take a quick step back: Both parties are on a quest to solidify the ballot for the June 30 primary. There are a couple ways for candidates to get on the ballot, including collecting signatures, earning 30 percent of the vote at the state assembly, or both collecting signatures and nabbing 10 percent of the support at the state assembly. Signature petitions were due last month and are still being counted. The county, multi-county, and congressional district caucuses and assemblies are done, which determined candidates for more local races. That leaves one big race to decide at the state assemblies and conventions: the U.S. Senate seat.
So far, former Gov. John Hickenlooper is the only Democratic candidate who has qualified for the ballot (he did so by submitting signatures). For Dems, Saturday’s event will focus on voting for who might also be on the ballot, including Andrew Romanoff, Stephany Rose Spaulding, and Erik Underwood. To do so, as mentioned above, these candidates will have to earn 30 percent of the vote, a possibility made mathematically more probable now that the field has narrowed (it once had more than a dozen candidates; read about all of them here).
On Saturday, Democratic Party ballots will be sent to predetermined delegates via Survey Monkey and will include links to short videos from each candidate. Delegates can vote from 9 a.m. to noon (they can also call their votes in to a hotline). In the afternoon, the Democrats will focus on convention responsibilities, including selecting presidential electors and the remaining delegates for the national convention. Final results will be available later in the day.
David Pourshoushtari, the Colorado Democratic Party’s communications director, says that people have responded well to changes in the process—some areas had a 100-percent participation rate—and is hopeful that will continue on Saturday. “You can see our delegates are making the best of an uncertain situation and taking advantage of the possibility of participating in this democratic process remotely,” Pourshoushtari says.
Republicans were set to meet at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield and will instead replicate the assembly environment virtually with a live-streamed event complete with speeches and the Pledge of Allegiance. Voting by delegates will be digital and mail-in, so results won’t be official until April 25 (ballots will be accepted until next Wednesday) but will solidify the U.S. Senate race (Margot Dupre is running against incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner) and establish committee members and delegates to the Republican National Convention.
“We’re just trying to make it as lively and as fun as possible,” says Joe Jackson, the Colorado Republican Party’s communications director. “We’re prioritizing the health and safety of everyone and following the governor’s orders, but political life has to move forward.” Jackson says that despite the changes, voters are still engaging from home. “At the end of the day, the people of Colorado are pretty resilient,” Jackson says. “We’re tough out West and people are willing to roll with the punches and do what needs to be done to get the job done.”
And there will be plenty of changes still to come. Fortunately, Colorado’s mail-in ballot system has already prepared us for a social-distanced election world. But, as long as stay-at-home orders are in place, candidates will have to pivot strategies to run virtual campaigns. Without the typical political events where candidates shake hands, kiss babies, and pose for selfies, they will need to find new ways to engage with audiences. All of which might sound a bit daunting, but has become commonplace in a world where schoolchildren are solving equations in virtual meetings and conference calls have become the norm for businesses. As long as campaigns figure out virtual backgrounds and filters—anyone want to try a potato head?—they’ll be able to adapt, just like the rest of us.