Colorado has avoided COVID-19 outbreaks at polling centers — but election officials are prepared for the possibility

Voters have options in case a location closes temporarily

Signature verifiers work at the Jefferson County elections office on Oct. 21, 2020. (Eli Imadali for Colorado Newsline)

No Colorado county has experienced a COVID-19 outbreak at any of its voter service and polling centers or ballot processing facilities, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases among staff at a facility within two weeks.

Still, such an outbreak could be disruptive this close to an election, as cases of COVID-19 rise across the state.

If an outbreak occurred, a polling site would have to close for “at least one day” for cleaning, Alton Dillard, spokesperson for the Denver Elections Division, said in an email.

Colorado voters have options, however — even if they want to vote in person or prefer to hand their mail ballot directly to election workers, instead of placing it in a drop box. “We’re not a state where a voter has to go to a particular precinct polling place to cast their ballot,” said Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association.

The secretary of state’s office has an online tool where voters can type in an address to find the nearest polling centers and drop box locations. When voters type in their address, most should see multiple polling locations come up on the map. Counties with fewer than 10,000 residents may only have one polling center.

Voter Guide

Polling center closures are posted at govotecolorado.com, where visitors can also find information about COVID-19 safety measures and how to vote this election.

Anderson pointed out that Nov. 3 will be Colorado’s third election since the pandemic began and that county clerks’ offices have employed public health protocols aimed at reducing virus transmission.

“(County clerks have) been doing hundreds of thousands of transactions since March under all of these protocols,” she said, explaining that counties have hired and trained extra election judges to serve as replacements if some people fall ill.

If it were forced to close a polling center temporarily for disinfection, the Denver Elections Division has backups in place, Dillard said.

“We have a contingency plan, including alternative sites, that we would activate,” he said. In the event of a closure, the division would notify the public by alerting media organizations, releasing information through social media and posting an alert on its website.

“We also would post notices at the facility that is closed directing voters to the alternative site,” Dillard added.

Election activities exempted from COVID restrictions

Wendy Manitta Holmes, spokesperson for Douglas County, said in an email that the county has not experienced any outbreaks at a polling center, according to the clerk and recorder.

“If there had been, we would be notified by our Tri-County Health Department,” she said.

Election activities are exempted from capacity requirements and other restrictions under the Safer at Home public health order, the latest version of which assigns restrictions based on a county’s level under the COVID-19 dial system implemented by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The exemption applies to “voter services and polling centers, county clerk offices, and other locations where election operations occur, including but not limited to the functions performed by election judges, signature gatherers/circulators, authorized watchers, and voters.”

Under general outbreak guidance from CDPHE, locations with an outbreak of two or more cases are recommended to close off areas visited by sick people and wait 24 hours or “as long as practical” before beginning cleaning and disinfection.

When asked about procedures around COVID-19 outbreaks, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office pointed to temporary rules for elections in the pandemic era.

Election Rule 27, on “Conducting Elections During Public Health Emergency,” requires counties that provide only the minimum number of polling centers to “identify backup voter service and polling center locations sufficient to maintain the minimum number … in the event of a closure, but no less than one, along with a list of essential voting equipment, to which the county can move the operations of a designated voter service and polling center … if a center has to close.”

“The county should have a plan to make the transition to the back-up location as expeditiously as possible,” the rule continues. “On election day the county must make the transition to the new location as expeditiously as possible and not longer than two hours. The County must share this plan with the Secretary of State’s office.”

The secretary of state’s COVID-19 election guidance, separate from the rules, doesn’t make specific recommendations for closing polling locations during an outbreak. However, it does say that counties should have polling centers and worksites deep cleaned before and after elections, and that staff “should be prepared to employ deep cleaning at any location that may experience an outbreak among staff or judges.”

The guidance also says drive-through or drive-up polling sites may be a “viable back-up option” should a polling center have to close.

Relatively few Coloradans choose to vote at a polling center in person. Other options include dropping off ballots at a secure, 24/7 drop box. (It’s too late to mail your ballot before the election.) Some counties, including Denver, operate drive-through ballot drop-off locations.

As of Oct. 28, the secretary of state’s office reported more than 2.12 million ballots returned ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Of those votes, around 46,300 — 2.18% — were cast in person.

Democrats comprised 35.3% of the total ballots returned, Republicans 27.6% and unaffiliated voters 36%.

Out of all gender and age groups, women ages 55 to 64 had returned the highest number of ballots as of Oct. 28, followed by women ages 65 to 74. Men ages 55 to 64 returned the third-highest number of ballots.

Visit your county clerk’s website or govotecolorado.com for the latest election information.