Did protests play role in record-breaking voter turnout?

June 30 primary election attracted almost 45% of active voters

By: - July 7, 2020 2:56 pm

Denver resident Adrienne Greene drops off a ballot June 30, 2020, outside the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building in Denver. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Last month, Colorado shattered the previous state record for voter turnout in a nonpresidential primary election.

As of 11:30 p.m. June 30, more than 1.57 million ballots had been returned to county election officials, according to the secretary of state’s office. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold took the opportunity to praise the state’s secure vote-by-mail election system.

“A total of 99.3% of voters cast a mail ballot, and there were not lengthy lines or wait times reported at in-person voting centers,” Griswold said in a July 1 statement. “Despite misleading attacks, disinformation, and attempts to make vote-by-mail a partisan issue, Colorado’s election proves that mail ballots are the key to accessible voting during this health crisis.”

President Donald Trump’s recent rhetoric suggesting that voting by mail isn’t secure apparently didn’t dissuade Republicans in Colorado from doing so. According to the secretary of state’s office, 99.4% of people who cast a ballot in the Republican primary (more than the 99.2% of those who voted in the Democratic primary) voted by mail.

[bctt tweet=”This election’s 44.96% turnout among active, registered voters far outstripped that of the 2018 nonpresidential primary, in which 37.63% of active voters participated.” username=”NewslineCO”]Based on initial data — with thousands of ballots still to be processed — this election’s 44.96% turnout among active, registered voters far outstripped that of the 2018 nonpresidential primary, in which 37.63% of active voters participated.

Some activists and political watchers credit the recent high-profile incidents of police violence against Black people as one factor contributing to high turnout.

“When you … have that kind of political unrest — not just here but around the country — I think that does inspire higher turnout to some extent, especially in the Democratic primary, which is going to be younger and it’s going to have more minority voters as well, especially compared to our Republican primary,” said Ryan Winger, director of data analysis and research projects for Louisville-based Republican firm Magellan Strategies.

Mikayla Hinton yells into a megaphone as thousands of people rally next to the Colorado State Capitol to protest the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020, in Denver. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was killed after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, inspired community members across the country to take action. Thousands of people took to the streets of Colorado’s cities and towns in the month before the primary election to protest police brutality against Black people.

Protest organizers and speakers in Denver and Colorado Springs frequently encouraged participants, many of whom were young people, to make their voices heard at the ballot box — not just in November but also in June.

“Here in El Paso County … one of my calls to action at the protests was, even if you are independent and support progressive policies, then you need to pay attention to the Republican (4th Judicial District attorney) race,” said Stephany Rose Spaulding, a former Democratic U.S. Senate primary candidate who chairs the Women’s & Ethnic Studies department at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

No Democrats are running for district attorney in the 4th Judicial District in November, so Republican and unaffiliated voters who voted in the GOP primary were choosing who would be the top prosecutor for El Paso and Teller counties. (Deputy District Attorney Mark Allen triumphed over Board of County Commissioners Chairman Mark Waller, but Spaulding declined to say whom she’d preferred.)

Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old Denver Public Schools board member and central figure at Denver protests, emphasized the value of down-ballot elections, too.

“Local elections don’t get the same attention that our elections in even years usually get,” he said, but this time seemed different. He pointed to the high turnout in the June 30 election of Lisa Escárcega as the Colorado State Board of Education member representing Denver, plus parts of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, as one clue that protest leaders’ message got across.

“She had, like, double the turnout that I did when I ran just six months ago,” he said of Escárcega. Anderson was elected in 2019 to an at-large position on the Denver Public Schools board, representing a similar (though not identical) geographic area.

Recently, Anderson took part in a unanimous board vote to keep school resource officers out of Denver Public Schools.

“We have to be able to show that voting is important on every election,” Anderson said. “People are like, ‘Well, how are you able to make so many robust changes from the school board?’ Because people voted me in. So we’ve got to get that message across.”

Voters had returned more than 918,000 ballots for the Democratic primary as of 11:30 p.m. election night, and close to 566,000 in the Republican primary. With thousands of ballots yet to be processed, those totals will shift once election results are certified later in July.

Besides the protests, unaffiliated voters having had more time to familiarize themselves with how to vote in party primaries, plus the convenience of Colorado’s all-mail election system, probably also contributed to the record-breaking turnout, Winger said.

Andrew Romanoff, left, and John Hickenlooper, right, the Democratic candidates in the June 30, 2020, primary election for U.S. Senate in Colorado. (Romanoff: andrewromanoff.com; Hickenlooper: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On the Democratic side, the closely watched Senate primary (where former Gov. John Hickenlooper beat former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff) was another key factor. Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner did not face a primary challenger.

“Whenever you have a contested primary on one side and an uncontested primary on the other … a contested primary is obviously going to draw higher turnout,” Winger said.

Certified election data for the 2018 primary, provided by the Colorado secretary of state’s office, reflects around 649,000 Democratic ballots and 522,000 Republican ballots returned in those respective elections. That turnout was record-breaking at the time.

Young people voted in greater numbers

Compared with 2018’s finalized results, 2020’s preliminary results from June 30 show a substantial increase in the number of young people who voted, especially in the Democratic primary.

In 2018, around 35,300 people ages 18 through 25 voted in the Democratic primary and 19,800 in the Republican primary, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. This year, at least 55,700 voters ages 18 through 24 cast ballots for Democrats, and 21,800 for Republicans.

This isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples — this year’s totals will shift once all ballots are counted and the results are certified. Also, the 2018 and 2020 data breaks down the age groups differently — this year’s data includes one less year. Despite those uncertainties, it’s clear that thousands more people in their late teens and early 20s voted this year than in 2018.

That makes sense to Winger.

“Typically what happens when you see very high turnout is it does mean that those unaffiliated voters and the younger voters are coming out to vote,” he said. “Older voters are more reliable voters, and so whenever you see a huge increase in turnout, it’s not because older voters are voting, because they’re kind of voting anyway.”

Thanks to a recent change, 17-year-old voters who will turn 18 before the November election were allowed to participate in this year’s primary, though they turned out in relatively small numbers.

The secretary of state’s office counted 2,562 ballots cast by people younger than 18 in the Democratic primary, and 1,167 in the Republican primary, as of 11:30 p.m. June 30.

Spaulding, a frequent presence at Colorado Springs protests, said it’s not just young people showing up at events decrying police brutality. Older people and white allies are consistently present, she said.

“Much of that has to do with where we are in the state of (COVID-19) and people not being at work,” she pointed out. “You still have so much of this population on unemployment because of (COVID-19), and that brought them out as well in ways that they might not have come out before — and then even to go out to the polls, hearing the cries of Black people and people of color.”

The number of active, unaffiliated voters increased by more than 27,600 between June 1 and July 1 of this year, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. The number of Democratic active voters increased around 9,800, and Republican active voters increased 5,300 in the same time period.

In November, Winger expects a turnout that’s “through the roof.”

“Back in 2016, the last presidential election, about 85% of active voters cast a ballot here in Colorado,” he said. “I would expect that to be at least 85% this year, and it could be as high as 88, 89, 90%. We could see over 3 million votes cast here in Colorado, which would be kind of a new milestone.”

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.