AURORA — Around 1 p.m. on Monday, Mehder Ferede, 22, opens the door of her home in a subdivision here in the Denver suburbs to find Jean Greenberg, a retiree and volunteer for the local Democratic Party. It is six days after the presidential election and Greenberg is there to tell Ferede that her vote was never counted.
“There’s a problem with your ballot,” Greenberg tells the young woman.
Technically, it was a problem with how Ferede’s ballot was cast. And here in Colorado a week after the election, a band of Democratic activists are scrambling in Arapahoe County to make sure every Democratic voter’s ballot counts as a too-close-to-call race for state board of education hangs in the balance.
Because of the state’s all-mail voting system, Election Day doesn’t actually end on Election Day. The law allows voters eight days after an election to fix, or “cure,” any problem that kept their vote from counting. Those problems include a voter forgetting to sign a ballot envelope, a signature that doesn’t match what election workers have on file, or a voter who was required to submit a copy of his or her ID neglecting to do so.
At issue in this particular ballot chase for Democrats is a race for a seat on the state Board of Education.
The race is between Democrat Rebecca McClellan and incumbent Republican Debora Scheffel and takes place in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, which is anchored by Aurora.
On Monday afternoon, the Secretary of State’s office was reporting McClellan was up by 1,125 votes. If Scheffel’s votes are within one half of one percent of McClellan’s, there will be an automatic recount; As of Monday night, the trigger was at about 891 votes. Scheffel could ask for a recount if the vote totals don’t fall her way, but she’d have to pay for it, and would only get the money back if she wins.
Democrats would rather see McClellan win it outright.
So for the past four days, an army of volunteers has been fanning across Arapahoe County, calling and knocking on doors of Democratic voters whose ballots they know were set aside. They are also chasing the uncounted ballots of unaffiliated voters who their data show might lean Democratic. They have until the close of business on Wednesday. Republicans have posted on social media about a similar effort.
This ballot-curing program being run feverishly out of the Arapahoe County office might seem like just a bit of campaign minutia in the post-election process. But the way it came together might have implications beyond the shaping of public policy by the state board of education. It might signal the start of the campaign for the next state Democratic Party chair.
David Sabados, the 34-year-old chair of the Colorado Young Democrats, said that in the days after the election, he and others noticed there were some very close races where they thought Democrats could win, including the race in the 6th District for state education board.
“We decided to see what we could do to help to start the process of curing ballots to make sure that every Democratic vote that was cast that can be counted will be,” he said.
Sabados said county officials and the Young Dems have taken the lead with legwork on the ballot-curing initiative instead of the state party. He says he doesn’t think the state chair saw it as a priority.
Not so, says State Party Chairman Rick Palacio. He personally recruited McClellan to run for the state board, he says, and in the days following the election he immediately directed the state party to assist in the efforts. That included him directing his staff to lay out the program for her, his attorneys being deployed to create the framework, and “ensuring the candidate had data and tools necessary to accomplish their goal of curing as many Democratic ballots as possible.”
Sabados and Palacio have a history. Two years ago Sabados challenged Palacio for the chairmanship, and lost. Sabados says he has received encouragement to run again.
“The honest answer is I’m doing this right now,” he says says about that possibility. “Anybody who wants to be doing the job should be focused on this right now.”
The ballot-cure initiative is an opportunity for Democrats to win in a down-ballot race following an election day that didn’t see huge wins across the board for Democrats in Colorado. (While the state went for Hillary Clinton by 4.6 percentage points, according to the latest unofficial results, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet kept his seat by 5.4, Republicans kept their congressional seats handily and their majority in the state Senate. A Republican also won an at-large seat for CU regent.)
“Not only would it be nice to see us win something, but this also will determine in part the balance of power within the state board of education,” says Chris Davis, 23, who has been helping the effort and was a former delegate for Bernie Sanders. Davis says he “bit the bullet” and voted for Clinton.
On Monday, inside the war room of the Arapahoe County Democratic Party’s office in Aurora, volunteers were trickling in to fetch clipboards and jot down the addresses of voters whose ballots needed curing. County party officials and leaders from the Young Dems were training those who showed up about the legal issues of what they could do or say if and when they found such a voter.
They can’t ask voters about specific races, for example, they just let them know their ballot wasn’t counted and show them how to make sure it is. Their hope is enough of those Democratic voters in the district also filled in a circle for McClellan.
If the effort is successful and McClellan wins, Democrats will hold a 4-3 majority on the state board of education, which makes general supervision decisions regarding public education in Colorado. It is an important time for the board as it monitors the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which succeeded the No Child Left Behind Act of the George W. Bush administration. The board also adopts policies and creates rules related to education laws passed by the General Assembly.
For the past two years, the board has been deeply divided. A rift started when its previous chair, Republican Marcia Neal, joined three Democrats in voting to elect a Democrat as vice-chair. Neal resigned shortly after, citing a dysfunctional board. The board will also select a new state education commissioner after the last one left in the spring.
All of which are reasons why Democrats want another of their own on the board, and to have party control of it.
McClellan was down by a few hundred votes before the effort started, Sabados said, and by Monday night was up by more than 1,000. He can’t say for sure how many of her votes since then were cured ballots, but he knows that her numbers go up as the number of ballots that need curing goes down.
Back at the door step in the Aurora subdivision, Ferede, the young woman whose vote wasn’t counted— the Dems have her listed as unaffiliated— tells the party volunteer Greenberg that she doesn’t think it’s fair she’s learning about all this so long after the election.
Greenberg shows her what she needs to do to make sure her ballot is counted by the Wednesday deadline, and Ferede says she’ll do it.
“It’s a perfectly fair system if you think about it,” Greenberg tells her. “The Election Day was Election Day and you thought ‘That’s it, it’s done,’ well, you can still correct— cure— your vote if there’s a problem.”
A few minutes and a few blocks later, a man named John Joseph is not amused to find someone at his door talking to him about an election that already happened, and even less amused to hear his vote wasn’t counted
“Look, I ain’t got time for all that,” he tells Greenberg as she starts to explain why she’s at his door. He works from home 13 hours a day, he tells her, and says Greenberg is wasting his time.
“I want your vote to count,” Greenberg tells him, explaining how he can quickly fill out a form and a take a photo of it, which he does, cooling down.
Joseph voted early, he says, recalling how he dropped his ballot off near where works out and even posted about it on Facebook.
“I encouraged my kids to vote,” he says, shaking his head. “And look at this.”
*This post has been updated to reflect the latest unofficial election results and comment from the state party chair.