Election 2006: Over Before It Starts?

Election Day this year in Colorado is Tuesday, November 7, 2006.  The polls will open at 7 a.m., and will close at 7 p.m.  But, the winner will be decided in many contested races long before that date.

This year, there is every reason to expect that absentee ballots and early voting will make up about half of the votes cast.  So, campaigns need to be ready for prime time when absentee ballots go to voters, about a month from now. How many people vote absentee or early?

Lots of people choose to vote absentee or early vote, although the exact numbers aren’t easily available and the readily available data is patchy.

Some of the best information is available from Denver’s Election Commission:

General Election Year  % Absentee or Early
1986  4.3%
1988*    6.5%
1990  4.1%
1992*    9.9%
1994  19.4%
1996*    15.6%
1998  24.2%
2000*    43.3%
2002  39.5%
2004*    43.1%

* Presidential election

Since at least 2000, including all elections, the trend has been for the share of absentee and early votes to be high in low turnout elections, and low in high turnout elections.  Impulsive voters vote at the polls.

The highest absentee/early vote percentage in Denver history, 62.1% came in the low turnout 2002 state primary where 55,497 votes were cast.  Next in line was the 53.1% share in the May 2005 municipal elections where 62,877 votes were cast.  The 2000 Presidential primary, in which 30,796 votes were cast, saw 48.1% of votes cast absentee or early.  In the state primary that same year, when 29,630 voters were cast, 47.9% of them were cast early or absentee.

This summer’s primary in Denver has an exceptionally low for a general election primary 42,834 voter turnout, something not surprising, given that there were only two contested primaries and one uncontroversial ballot issue facing voters.  Thus, it is not surprising that the absentee and early voting share of the vote hit a new high at 72.9% of the votes cast.  The switch from local precincts to vote centers, and the general trend towards early and absentee voting may also have been a factor.

However, given the competitive races and numerous ballot issues facing voters this year, turnout is unlikely to be exceptionally low in the general election.  So, in Denver, a combined early and absentee voting share of all votes cast in this election of about 40% to 45% seems likely.

Suburban counties have tended to favor absentee and early voting to a greater extent than Denver. 

In the primary this year in Arapahoe County (the suburban county immediately to the South of Denver), 85.4% of votes were cast in this way.  In the 2004 Presidential election, 50.1% of Arapahoe County ballots were early or absentee.  In the 2002 general election in Arapahoe County, the share of the total number of votes cast was also 50.1%.

In Jefferson County (the suburban county immediately to the West of Denver), 58.9% of votes cast in the 2004 Presidential election were early or absentee ballots.

In the hotly contested primary in El Paso County (home to Colorado Springs) this year, featuring the six way race for the GOP nomination to the 5th Congresional District, 46.9% of voters chose to vote early or absentee.  In the 2004 Presidential election, 39.4% of voters cast ballots early or absentee.  In the 2002 general election in El Paso County, 37.9% of voters did so.

Statewide, the share of voters voting early or absentee in the 2006 general election is likely to be in the vicinity of 45% to 55%.

The Deadlines

How soon does a campaign have to be ready?

The Colorado Secretary of State provides most of the deadlines in the 2006 election calendar.

In Colorado “any eligible elector may vote by absentee ballot at any election.”  Voters who are overseas or are military personnel can even vote electronically if they make the proper application for permission to do so.

Absentee ballots can be requested (on this form) as early as January 1 of the year of the election and late as October 31, and can be turned in until the close of the polls on the election day.  Emergency absentee ballots can be requested as late as 5 p.m. on election day and are due by the close of the polls on election day.

Absentee ballots for the general election must be sent by election officials to voters within 72 hours of receipt, or within 72 hours after printed ballots are received by the election officials, whichever comes first.  This means, in practice, that absentee ballots for the general election must be mailed no later than October 9, and can mail them no sooner than a day or two after the Secretary of State finalized the state ballot.  This happened, as required by law, by September 11 this year.  The official list of candidates is here.

Early voting is from October 23 to November 3 this year, and any registered voter who doesn’t vote absentee can vote early.

Election officials can begin counting absentee and early ballots on October 28.  Most release these results as soon as the polls close, although the surprise upset victory of Lamborn in the 5th Congressional District Republican primary shows that El Paso County apparently doesn’t follow this practice.

Of course, you have to be a registered voter to vote, something that must be accomplished by October 10 this year.  As of August 14 of this year, 2,934,750 people were registrered to vote, and 2,373,874 of those registrations were “active.”

In practice, this means that campaigns must be ready for prime time about a month from now.  Waiting until election day costs a campaign about half of the vote.

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