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California Looks to Colorado to Increase Voter Turnout

Jack Blumenthal of Denver, on his bike, discusses Colorado's new voting system with an elections department worker on Tuesday.


There’s a tent – in the middle of the road – in downtown Denver, right outside the elections headquarters.

A voting center worker thanks a voter for dropping off their ballot on a sunny fall day.

“Thanks for coming out here and doing this – it’s a great help to me. I’m a late person,” the voter tells the worker.

Colorado Votes -Drive Thru

A Colorado voter drops off his ballot Tuesday at a voting center in downtown Denver. 

This is what Election Day sounds like in Colorado now. Under a law passed two years ago, registered voters get their ballots in the mail. They can mail them back, drop them off at a voting center in their county, or vote in person. And there’s even same-day voter registration.

The catch?

“The neighborhood polling places were eliminated," says Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams. "Instead, in a small county, you might have a single place you could go in person; in a large county, you might have as many as 25. And you can go to any one of those 25 within the county.” 

The voting centers are open for days – and sometimes weeks – up to and including Election Day.

Williams says county election officials generally like Colorado’s new system. It’s easier – and often cheaper – to operate. And it’s credited with increasing voter turnout.

But there are challenges: It’s harder for counties to recruit voting center workers.

"You’re now looking for a judge who can be available for an extended period – in some cases, several weeks – and who is technologically savvy," says Williams.

Also: the Postal Service doesn’t always deliver ballots on time; rural voters have to drive long distances to reach voting centers; and many voting centers sit empty for long stretches of time: Williams says only five percent of Coloradans prefer to vote in person now.

Still, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla wants to bring Colorado’s system to the Golden State.

"I think as counties begin to adopt this law in California, the rest of the state will see the value in it and we’ll eventually move in this direction," he says.

Padilla is sponsoring legislation that would allow individual counties to shift to the new model. He led a contingent of California officials to Denver to check out Tuesday’s election. The Legislature will debate the bill next year. And it does have some opposition – at least for now.

"Vote-by-mail sounds like the perfect solution to participation," says Lori Shellenberger, who runs the ACLU of California’s Voting Rights Project. "But there still exists a pretty big disparity in terms of folks who use vote-by-mail and folks that don’t."

Shellenberger believes the new system is the future, but only after the needs of homeless, disabled and non-English-speaking voters are addressed.

As for the longstanding American tradition of casting your ballot in person at the same elementary school every Election Day?

"I would feel more sentimental about that if more people were voting," laughs Shellenberger. "But I think we are at a point where we have to explore new ways for people to cast ballots." 

At the Denver voting center, people drive through the tent and turn in their ballots, which they’ve already filled out at home. Some voters walk or bike.

Jack Blumenthal cycled up to talk with a poll worker; he’d already dropped off his ballot. Blumenthal is an accountant and serves on the board of a liberal advocacy group. He says he likes the secure drop boxes around the state – but thinks these voting centers are a waste of money.

"This so-called added convenience comes at a great expense to public services that are in dire need for more funding," says Blumenthal.

Colorado’s Secretary of State says he hopes lawmakers will tweak the rules to let counties decide how many voting centers they need. But first, the system must face the ultimate test: a presidential election in a swing state.

Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio contributed to this report.