Election judges, usually temporary workers, organize ballots to go through the sorting machine at the Jefferson County elections building on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)
Through Oct. 25, nine days before the general election, Coloradans had already returned more than 1.61 million ballots. That comprises a 43.3% turnout among active registered voters.
In 2016, just 879,000 ballots were returned nine days before the November election, representing 28.1% of active voters.
High turnout among early voters portends well for election staff in county clerks’ offices, and it could mean there’s a better chance of knowing likely winners by the day after the election — though all results are unofficial until they’re certified Nov. 25.
“We’re seeing a really brisk early vote,” said Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, adding that if voters “know their choices and can vote early, we think that’s awesome.”
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Across the state, county clerks have been encouraging people to vote early, due to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Social distancing requirements aimed at mitigating the virus’ spread mean ballot processing can take longer than usual, Anderson said.
Early in the pandemic, some counties also expressed concerns that they wouldn’t have enough people willing to serve as election judges. Those roles are typically filled by retired people who are more vulnerable to severe symptoms from COVID-19.
But Coloradans met the need, resulting in a “big surplus and a waiting list” of election judges in the state.
“We have actually had a wonderful response from people willing to step forward,” Anderson said.
The big night
So what can voters expect on election night? Will they know the outcomes of state and local races before going to bed?
That depends, Anderson said, on how many people return their ballots before about 4 p.m. on election day, Nov. 3. It might be that somewhere between 60% and 70% of ballots are cast by that time.
Election officials at county clerk’s offices across the state are allowed to start sorting and counting ballots 15 days before the election, so the more people vote early, the less time it will take after 7 p.m. Nov. 3 for the results to be tabulated, and the more likely it is that a clear winner will emerge on election night.
“Counties tabulate results at their level … and then upload those results to the state system,” Betsy Hart, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, explained in an email. “Counties may also choose to post their county level results on their websites, however they are not required to do so.”
You can view election results on the secretary of state’s website. Check a few minutes after 7 p.m. on Nov. 3, and keep refreshing the page. County clerks who post their own results may have them up a few minutes earlier, Anderson said.
All results are unofficial until Nov. 25, when they’re audited and certified, and Nov. 13 is the deadline for “final unofficial results” to be posted. Results will be updated between Nov. 3 and Nov. 13.
However, a likely winner will probably emerge in some state and local races before midnight on election night. The first big batch of results are released after 7 p.m., and they are updated — as election officials continue to count votes received on election day — every 60 to 90 minutes, until midnight or 2 a.m., when a county clerk’s office will announce that election staff are calling it a night. They’ll come back to resume counting the next morning.
Hart expects that about 75% to 80% of ballots will be counted by midday Nov. 4. “(Presidential) elections often elicit high turn-out,” she pointed out, “which means more ballots may have to be processed.”
“The biggest variable is the number of Coloradans who vote (either early in-person or return their ballot via mail, drop box or in person) in advance of election day relative to those who return their ballot or vote in person on election day,” Hart added. “The more ballots cast before election day, the faster ballots can be processed.”
Anderson recommends voting by the Friday before Election Day to make sure your vote is counted in the initial “big reveal” of results released just after 7 p.m. Nov. 3. That way, you have plenty of time to cure signature discrepancies or resolve any other issues that may come up with your ballot.
What Colorado voters should keep in mind
To track the status of your ballot, you can sign up for BallotTrax, a new statewide system. Go to colorado.ballottrax.net to sign up, or, if you’re a Denver voter, visit ballottrace.org/home to update your preferences.
Voters with signature discrepancies have eight days after the election to cure the issue. They’ll receive a notice in the mail from their county clerk’s office. The notice includes instructions for returning a signed affidavit and photocopy of an acceptable form of ID to their local elections office. It will also include instructions for using the TXT2Cure system, a new process for curing ballot issues via smartphone.
If you’re affected by a wildfire or a snowstorm that prevents you from making it to a voter service and polling center in your area, the state has contingency measures in place.
Keep in mind that you can return your mail ballot to any drop box in the state, if you’re stuck in a different county, or if you’ll be traveling between now and Election Day. Your ballot will be sent to the elections office in the county where you’re registered to vote.
Voters who need a replacement ballot — if the ballot was lost or damaged, for example — can get one at any voter service and polling center in their county.
If you never received a ballot, Oct. 26 was the last day to request that one be mailed to you. Oct. 26 was also the last day county clerks recommend putting your ballot in the mail. After that, place it in a secure, 24/7 ballot drop box or bring it to a voter service and polling center in your county. The secretary of state’s office has an online tool where you can type in your address to find the nearest location.
If you need a replacement ballot but are unable to return to your county of residence before the election, you can visit any voter service and polling center in the state to receive a statewide ballot that lets you vote in the presidential and statewide elections (just not city or county races).
Finally, first responders and people displaced by fires have the ability to vote with an emergency ballot electronically. Call your county clerk’s office for more information about how to vote this way.
Mail ballots must be received by election day — except for the small number of overseas military voters, whose ballots may be received until eight days after the election. Unlike in some other states, where ballots must be postmarked by election day, the potential is relatively slim that days after the election, Colorado races could flip from favoring one candidate to another.
Still, Anderson suggests voting early if at all possible, especially if you plan to vote in person.
Election Day lines at polling centers may have to move outdoors because of social distancing requirements, she said, and “we don’t know what the weather is going to be like.”
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