Denver, Colorado – On the chilly evening of November 3, Colorado’s election officials are already swamped. In an election center in downtown Denver, mail-in ballots whiz through high-tech machines that scan signatures for comparison, slice envelopes open for the retrieval of secret ballots, and tally the votes. Election judges bustle under 24-hour cameras, wearing colored vests and buttons identifying their party affiliation. Bipartisan election watchers hover nearby, and a public-information officer leads journalists on tours, tracing the complex figure-eight journey a ballot makes through the building. As of Monday, the secretary of state reported, 1.36 million ballots had been cast.
Two years ago, Colorado’s Democrats passed sweeping reforms to the state’s election system, collecting most votes from mail-in ballots to improve voter access. But critics of the mail-in system say it creates the potential for outcome-changing fraud in tight races. Meanwhile, the possibility exists that Democrats may live to regret their choice: In this election, at least, most mail-in voters self-identify as (or “are registered”) Republicans.
Wayne Williams, the El Paso County Clerk, says vulnerabilities absolutely exist under the new system. The same-day voter-registration law does not require a photo ID, he tells me, so anyone who walks in and claims to be a Coloradoan will be given a ballot, and “we cannot do anything but prosecute them” after the fact, he says — the vote still counts.
Williams says voters have also told the clerk’s office that they’ve received mail-in ballots for residents who never lived at that address, and that there’s little to prevent fraudsters from casting ballots that don’t belong to them.
“Most Coloradoans don’t commit voter fraud,” Williams says. “Most Coloradoans don’t rob banks, But banks have security, and we need security to prevent voter fraud. . . . There doesn’t have to be much for a concern to be raised, to undermine confidence. In a close election, even a little bit of wrongdoing can make a difference.”
Marilyn Marks, a longtime election-integrity advocate and adviser to the board of the Rocky Mountain Foundation, says the signature-based verification process for mail-in ballots has major flaws. Bipartisan election judges compare signatures on ballots with signatures in the state database, but in some places, like Boulder County, Marks says, election judges give the signatures a two-second glance on a computer screen, then issue rapid-click approval — and the election watchers who can raise challenges aren’t given sufficient access.
Other election observers, including Marks, say they’re also concerned about so-called ballot harvesters, who can legally collect up to ten mail-in ballots from voters, potentially pressuring them in the process. And there are few safeguards to ensure these harvesters don’t collect more than ten ballots.
“My concern is that there is so much potential for fraud, irregularities, tabulation errors, loss of chain of custody, and undo influence that we’ve created an honor system, and I don’t believe an honor system in an election works,” Marks says. “In a high-stakes election like this, there’s so much temptation. . . . It would be naïve to believe it’s not happening with this many vulnerabilities in the system.”
Ryan Call, state chairman for the Colorado Republican Party, says that so far, he’s seen “no credible evidence of fraud or systematic breakdowns or abuse in the system,” a claim echoed by other spokesmen within the party.
Still, says Floyd Ciruli, an independent Denver pollster, any abuse that does occur could really change the outcome of the election.
“We certainly feel that these races here could be close,” Ciruli tells me. “The governor’s race is tied, and the Senate race is close. So there’s certainly some anxiety that if it gets down to a small amount of votes, you don’t want fraud.” Some races could be decided by a thousand votes or less, he says, and “one violation per precinct would be a discrepancy of several thousand.”
In a fine irony, Ciruli says, the mail-in ballot system may end up benefiting Republicans and harming the Democrats who passed the election reforms.
“The Democrats felt that, No 1., convenience itself would bring out some Democrats, that having to physically go someplace is a burden they shy away from,” Ciruli says. “Secondly, they felt they have a better system of ballot-chasing.”
But Republicans seem to have stepped up their get-out-the-vote efforts, mobilizing voters more effectively than their Democratic counterparts, if the mail-in ballots collected so far are an indication. On Monday, 112,518 more Republicans had cast mail-in votes than Democrats, though some may be swing voters.
Moreover, Democrats like incumbent Senator Mark Udall find themselves on the defensive, linked to a president with low popularity. Colorado’s election has become nationalized, as Republicans seek control of the Senate, Ciruli says, and most pundits believe Republican Cory Gardner will win. That’s left some Democrat voters feeling like their vote doesn’t much matter because the outcome is already decided.
Despite obviously improved get-out-the-vote efforts, Colorado’s Republicans refused on Monday to discuss their strategy in detail. At a rally for Gardner in Greenwood Village, volunteers cheered as the would-be senator declared Colorado “the tip of the spear, the fulcrum of power.” But as Gardner worked the room, shaking hands and posing for selfies with supporters, Republican spokesmen declined to comment on strategy, as did volunteers and interns who would be canvassing later that afternoon.
“I think [remaining close-lipped] is a wise move: They feel that it simply motivates Democrats to do more,” Ciruli says, adding the Republicans have also been very careful about the interviews they give, recognizing “you’re one mistake away from a big problem.”
“This is an election to just execute: Get it done,” Ciruli says. “There will be plenty of high-fives when it’s over if indeed they accomplish their goal.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center.