Dramatic Shift on the Way for Colorado Elections

Yesterday the Colorado General Assembly passed and sent to the Governor Senate Bill 07-234, which will dramatically change how most elections and campaigns are run in the state.  The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ken Gordon (D-Denver) and Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder), creates a new type of voter in Colorado – a permanent mail-in voter.

By signing up as a permanent mail-in voter, one agrees to have their ballot mailed to them for every election.  In 2002, California passed a similar measure, authorizing voters to sign up as permanent absentee voters.  The result in California, as the graph below shows, has been a surge in ballots cast before Election Day.

Before making permanent absentee (or mail-in) voting an option in California, absentee voting was already growing, and an important part of the California campaign system.  In the general election of 1998 and 2000 in California, about one voter in four cast an absentee ballot.

Passage of permanent absentee balloting fueled a surge in absentee voting.  In 2006, fully 41% of California voters cast an absentee ballot, up from 27% in 2002 and 25% in 1998.  More than 25% of California voters are now signed up to vote an absentee ballot in every election they face.

If a similar surge in mail-in voting occurs in Colorado, the impact on political campaigns will be extensive, forcing major changes to get out of the vote efforts, campaign advertising strategies, and even the way the media covers races.

Mail-in voting will stretch out the election.  Many permanent mail-in voters will cast ballots weeks before the official Election Day, forcing campaigns to begin their advertising campaigns even earlier, and thus possibly requiring more money to be spent by campaigns to be heard by voters.

This elongated voting period can actually prove beneficial to volunteer based political groups that focus on boosting voter turnout.  Rather than trying to rally volunteers on Election Day, which is always a work day, these groups will be able to devise voter contact programs that fit in the schedules of their volunteers.  Churches and other community groups could also promote turnout by organizing events on the weekend where voters will cast their ballots as a group.

The campaigns and political volunteers are not the only ones who will have to adjust.  The news media will also face a greater challenge in projecting the winners of elections.  Exit polls will become less accurate, as fewer voters actually show up to cast a ballot in person.  Media outlets will be more dependent on Election Day vote tallies and telephone polls, which is an industry already facing increasing strain with the growth of caller-ID technology that allows call recipients to screen their phone calls without answering their phone.

According to the Vote by Mail Project, which has been lobbying in favor of SB 234, another impact of permanent mail-in voting will be improved voter turnout. 

The recent turnout in Denver’s city election, which was conducted entirely by a mail-in ballot, supports this claim.  Turnout hit 42.5% of active registered voters this year.  In a similar election held in 1999 that did not feature a competitive race for Mayor, turnout reached only 26.4% of active registration.

When it comes to statewide elections, though, California’s turnout numbers have differed little in the few elections held after permanent absentee voting was approved.  Turnout in 2004 in California was 76%, and in 1992 it was 75%.

Of course, in Denver, mail-in voting was mandatory, whereas in California it is optional.

Oregon has the most extensive recent history of any state with mail-in voting.  All elections in the state are now held entirely by mail-in ballots, as a result of a ballot measure that passed in 1998.  In the last few years, turnout for statewide elections there have varied between 35% for a special election held in September 2003 to 86% in the 2004 November Presidential election.

Only time will tell the full impact of this new option for voting, but the evidence clearly suggests Colorado in store for significant changes, with regular mail-in voters benefiting the most.

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Mark Mehringer

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