What Colorado's Huge Voter Engagement Can Teach the Nation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this state has the blueprint for increasing voter turnout.
By Nick Fouriezos
Drive-thru ballot boxes. Walmart election centers. Sheriffs dropping off ballots door-to-door. High schoolers serving as election judges. These are just a few of the things that have turned Colorado into one of the top voting centers in America.
As part of our 2020 election coverage, OZY set out to pinpoint the most politically activated communities in the country to better understand what makes them tick. We discovered that Colorado was home to five of the top seven counties in the nation for voter turnout during the last presidential election, according to our exclusive voter participation analysis with Washington-based data and consulting firm 0ptimus.
Top counties by voter turnout (with estimated voting-age population) in 2016
- Mineral, Colorado, 99% (660)
- McMullen, Texas, 98% (510)
- Harding, New Mexico, 97% (545)
- Douglas, Colorado, 92% (203,340)
- Elbert, Colorado, 92% (17,400)
- Dolores, Colorado, 90% (1,390)
- Broomfield, Colorado, 90% (41,770)
Just 600 miles and a 12-hour drive encapsulate the heartland of American civic duty, from the northwestern suburbs of Denver to the eastern plains of Colorado and the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. Fascinatingly, their demographics and their politics vary as much as their vistas, ranging in size and geography. Four of the counties overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, while Broomfield backed Hillary Clinton, who won statewide by 5 percentage points.
With such differences, what similarities allowed these five counties to be among the most engaged communities in the country? After spending a week crisscrossing the state and interviewing voters and election experts, OZY found some common motivations. An all-mail ballot system encouraged education on the issues. A referendum model put democracy directly in the hands of voters. A meddling-free election system and a postelection audit, led by a Republican secretary of state, fostered trust.
Different states share some of these approaches with Colorado, but it is the only state where all these measures come together. According to the elections nonprofit Vote at Home, it is one of only three states (including Oregon and Washington) that have both same-day voter registration and an all-mail ballot. Of those, it had the greatest midterm turnout in 2018, the second-best in the nation at 63 percent trailing only Minnesota, which benefited from having a Senate race on the ballot.
There is also something special about these five counties, which turned out at a higher rate than the rest of the state in 2016 (when Colorado only had the country’s fourth-highest turnout at 72 percent). With uncommon creativity around getting people to the polls and inspiring issues on the ballot, these pockets of near-universal voting provide a valuable template for the nation embarking on a national election, where both parties will be doing all they can to bring people off the sidelines.
The journey starts in Broomfield County, a half-hour northwest of the Denver airport. Colorado’s newest county, consolidated in 2001, is a land of outdoor malls and gleaming suburban houses. It’s tempting to credit its engagement to youthful exuberance: “The whole setup of the city and county is very citizen-focused,” says elections manager Todd Davidson. The library has an advisory board. So does the senior center. There is even an advisory board for the advisory boards.
Broomfield is a bedroom community to nearby Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, which is typically not a recipe for civic involvement (some political experts believe voter turnout is lower for those who spend more time commuting and working in other jurisdictions). Among other things though, Broomfield voters are especially animated about oil and gas extraction in their county. In 2017, they passed Issue 301 by a 57 percent margin, amending the city’s charter to allow Broomfield to regulate oil and gas developments trying to work within its boundaries. The issue pitted the state of Colorado — which insists its decisions supersede local rule — against the suburban county. Some say the state is forcing oil on them against their wishes, while others see it as an economic boon from the state’s largest industry. “It’s a very active topic,” Davidson says, one that has led to ballot referendums in each of the last three elections.
The lesson is simple: Give people the ability to vote on things that affect their lives, and they will. Perhaps no state does that better than Colorado. Elected officials can face recall elections if citizens sign a petition equal to a quarter of the total vote within two months. Colorado is one of only 14 states that put citizen referendums directly on the ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It allows voters to put any constitutional amendment, statute or veto referendum up for a vote if they can get enough signatures (as of now, 124,632). With seven citizen-led ballot initiatives in 2016, Colorado only trailed California, which had 16. And it is the only state where every proposed tax must be approved by voters, due to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights passed in 1992.
Everything from a minimum wage increase and right-to-die legislation to opening presidential primaries to independents was considered in 2016. “Even if you hated both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, if you smoked, there was a cigarette tax on the ballot,” says Wayne Williams, the secretary of state during the 2016 and 2018 elections. Williams, a Republican, adds that a full 5 percent of voters in the 2012 election filled out only two items on the ballot: their vote for president … and their vote on weed legalization.
Colorado can have as many as 50 local and statewide issues to vote on, which is why it’s helpful that citizens receive their ballots by mail 22 days before Election Day. With time to research, they can pay attention to what they want and scrap the rest. Yet while what’s on the ballot is important, there is another part of the equation that’s critical, say observers: faith in the system. “It matters,” Williams says. “If I don’t think my vote is going to be counted accurately, why would I be bothered to vote?”
An hour south, clerk and recorder Merlin Klotz shows off why voters should have faith in their election system in Douglas County, the seventh-most populous county in Colorado and one of the wealthiest in America. The state allows same-day registration and an opt-in at the DMV, which allows it to compile a signature database. Voters sign their mail ballots and turn them in. A vote-counting machine cross-checks it without opening the envelope, and two election judges, Democrat and Republican, confirm it. Spectators can watch through clear windows and television monitors that show the judges’ screens to the public. “The biggest thing we’ve done is build trust,” Klotz says.
That hokey sentiment also means citizens are more demanding. In neighboring Elbert County — a more rural area where rodeos and county fairs abound — dozens of voters came in furious after Trump questioned whether mail ballots were being counted during a speech in Greeley, Colorado, about a week before the 2016 election. “I had people saying, ‘You’re throwing my vote away!’” says Elbert elections manager Rhonda Braun. “It didn’t help that the national media was telling us our system was hacked all the time.”
After that election, Williams helped Colorado implement nearly every safety measure suggested by national election experts. It was named the safest state to vote in by everyone from The Washington Post to Trump’s then Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
Comforting locations help too. After a 2006 election marred by long lines, Douglas County pioneered a first-in-the-nation program in which nine local high schools served as polling sites and used students as election judges, who were paid in public service credits and salaries donated to a school activity of their choice (as of the 2016 election, the model had raised $57,000). Elbert County worked out a deal with a local Walmart to host a 24/7 mail-vote drop-off box for a few years, although it later pulled out of the program without giving a reason, election officials say. The county’s current office is a former bank, which allows for drive-thru voting as easy as dropping off checks at an ATM. A statewide-sharing program means voters can drop off their ballot in any Colorado county and have it be counted, a system that only Oregon and Washington also have.
Especially in low-population rural counties, the actions of one person can make a huge difference. It was no accident Mineral County led the country; it often leads the state in voting, thanks mostly to the efforts of Eryn Wintz, a do-it-all county clerk who shames voters in grocery stores, drafts her children into painting ballot boxes and enlists local sheriffs to drop off and pick up ballots directly from voters’ homes. “We sort of become an island, we’re so removed and so remote,” she said in an interview published on the secretary of state’s blog in the last presidential election. But that hasn’t stopped the county from standing out. The tiny county has one tiny town (Creede, a silver mining outpost) and has been called the “Cheers of Colorado,” made up of 95 percent public lands in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and Rio Grande National Forest.
The state’s most successful voting reforms are thanks to the Colorado Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, which was signed into law in 2013 by then-governor John Hickenlooper (he’s now running for president). Now former Denver elections director and Vote at Home executive director Amber McReynolds — a chief architect of that bill who worked on its final draft from a hospital bed hours after giving birth to her son — is spreading the gospel of those reforms with speeches everywhere from Chicago and Detroit to Lansing, Michigan, and Virginia Beach. Beyond the technical, the thrust of her message is simple: “Too many policymakers, all they care about is who wins and not who votes.” Colorado, particularly its most vote-happy areas, has proven otherwise.