Half of Coloradans will have a new county clerk for 2024 elections
High rate of turnover sparks concern for voter trust in election process
Chaffee County is color-coding its ballot envelopes for the upcoming November 2023 election. County Clerk Lori Mitchell said the colors should simplify mail-in voting. (Mike Sweeney for Colorado Newsline)
As the 2024 presidential primary and general elections loom, almost half of Coloradans will vote in a county that has a different chief local election official than the one who oversaw the previous presidential election.
That is according to a new report from the nonpartisan group Issue One, which studied election official turnover since 2020 in 11 Western states. In total, it found that 160 top election officials left their jobs in the past three years, since the onslaught of misinformation following the 2020 presidential election.
In Colorado, 24 of the state’s 64 counties will have clerks next year who are different than the ones who administered the 2020 election. About 48% of the state’s residents live in those counties.
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That is not as severe as in some neighboring states. In Utah, 59% of counties will have new election officials. And in swing-state Arizona, that share is 80% — accounting for counties where 98% of the state’s population lives.
“This report is just the latest to confirm what we’ve known all along: Extreme elected officials and election deniers have created an environment of threats against dedicated election administrators across the country. Nobody should feel threatened just for reporting to work,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a statement.
The report calculated that the exodus in Colorado means a loss of 314 combined years of institutional knowledge, reducing the median amount of experiences officials in the counties have from eight years to less than one year.
“It’s a unique time to have a third of our folks coming in new, in the middle of what we anticipate to be an election that is even more contentious and full of lies than the 2020 election was,” said Matt Crane, the head of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “We typically say that you have to go through a full four-year election cycle to say that you’re an expert at running elections.”
He said the association is especially focused on supporting clerks so they can effectively respond to misinformation.
'Stress was a factor'
Part of the turnover can be attributed to an incumbent clerk losing reelection or facing term limits. In Pueblo County, for example, voters selected newcomer Candace Rivera over previous clerk Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz in 2022. In El Paso County, Steve Schleiker took over after Chuck Broerman hit his two-term limit.
The report contends, however, that increased pressure, work loads and harassment towards clerks and election workers also played a role in the turnover as clerks decided to leave their position early.
“There’s no question, for those who weren’t term limited, that the environment and stress was a factor in their decision to not run for reelection and to step away from the field,” Crane said.
Since the 2020 presidential election, when former President Donald Trump claimed incorrectly that the election was stolen from him and rigged in President Joe Biden’s favor, Colorado clerks have had to juggle their administrative tasks with a new expectation that they defend the local election system from people who doubt its fairness.
“One thing we learned after 2020 was that if a mistake is made — even if it’s an honest mistake and even if it’s corrected right away and communicated to the public — people will use it as an example of a crack in the system,” Crane said. “We know the bad guys don’t play fair.”
The report reiterates that any small mistakes that new clerks might make could be used as fodder for election deniers.
Adams County Clerk and Recorder Josh Zygielbaum said that every clerk will have the support and resources to run 2024 elections successfully.
“As fellow clerks, we regularly reach out to offer support and guidance,” he said. “Even though we have quite a number of new clerks, there’s a great support network for them. We’ll make sure they have everything they need.”
Additionally, election workers and staff do not turn over with a new clerk, so institutional knowledge is retained in the form of those longtime employees, he said.
Zygielbaum said that the rise in election conspiracy theories motivates, rather than deters, his work.
“It could be nerve-wracking for other clerks who may have left before their term limit. Perhaps it’s a reason for them,” he said. “But what I hear from other clerks is that they are digging in to make sure elections are fair and successful.”
The report calls for more funding and stronger security protections for election workers. In 2022, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed laws to protect election systems from so-called insider threats and make it illegal to threaten or publish personal information about election workers, an act of harassment known as doxxing. Griswold said her office has a "dedicated team to support county professionals" during elections.
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