Earlier this week, in the office of Boulder’s election division, workers were keeping a tally on sticky notes when voters started calling to cancel their registration or to become so-called confidential voters.
Since Monday, according to official counts, the office has seen 270 of its voters cancel their registration. About 70 have asked for confidential status, in which they sign an affidavit saying they feel their safety is at risk.
That is a seismic boom for an office that typically sees just a handful of such asks each week— if that, says Mircalla Wozniak, an elections division spokeswoman.
The sticky notes in Boulder, since taken away by recycling, are the fluttering physical sign of a stark reality following a week that swept this state’s election officials into a swirl of controversy.
Colorado is a state where its top elections manager, Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, has welcomed a federal voter fraud task force’s request for input on potential federal policies. What has drawn greater controversy is that task force’s request that states provide the personal, but publicly available, information of voters. Williams says he is merely complying with state law— and he is— by giving Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity the names, addresses, birth year, and party affiliation of all of Colorado’s 3.7 million voters. He has not denounced the commission or its vice chair Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as other Democratic and Republican election officials have.
Response from the Colorado electorate has been overwhelmingly negative.
Voters who fear their personal information heading to the hands of an administration they don’t trust have looked to a voter version of life hacks to thwart it.
Election officials across the state are reporting a spike in voters requesting confidential status. Others are unregistering altogether with plans to sign back up after July 14 when Williams sends Colorado’s voter data to the feds.
“There’s confusion, there’s hysteria,” says Amber McReynolds, the director of elections in Denver. In the past week her office has been flooded with calls and foot traffic. Denver has seen a 2,150 percent increase in voters cancelling their registration in recent days. There were 180 on July 6 alone.
“In over 12 years of administering elections I never expected to see a day in the office where we would have more withdrawals than new registrations— and that happened yesterday,” she told The Colorado Independent. “So, it’s real.”
In Arapahoe County, a mix of rural ranches and suburbia southeast of Denver, elections officials say they’ve seen an uptick in voters casting off their franchise.
“Which is frustrating,” says Matt Crane, who heads up the elections office there. So far this whole year, 365 voters un-registered, he says after crunching the numbers. Roughly 42 percent of those came in the past week alone. “I think we all know why that is,” he says.
In the past week, at least 40 voters signed up for confidential status. “From what we hear … they don’t want their information to be a part of the commission’s work,” Crane says.
Frustration has been what voters are registering to their elections workers in Arapahoe County since news about Trump’s commission hit the newspapers, online sites, TV screens and airwaves. Crane says his message back to those voters has been to keep calm. He tells them it’s more important to stay registered and stay involved. “That’s the best way to let your voice be heard.”
Down in Trump country, Colorado, the large conservative county of El Paso that encompasses Colorado Springs, things haven’t been so crazy, says spokeswoman Mattie Albert. But people have been coming in and the phones have been ringing. “We’re just taking the calls when we get them,” she says. Officials there aren’t keeping track of the changes to voter registration, she says.
Move out east on the plains, away from the urban Front Range, and things are quieter.
In Yuma, where the biggest news recently was Republican. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner playing with squirt guns on his lawn the day before July 4, life around the clerk’s office has been business as usual.
“It’s harvest time out here,” says Clerk Beverly Wenger, who isn’t sure how many people are paying that close attention to the latest news cycle out of D.C. or Denver. No flood of calls, no people at the door in Yuma. “Everybody is in the field and everybody is working,” she says.
In Grand County, which encircles Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs to the west of Denver and has about 11,000 voters, about a dozen of them have switched to confidential status in recent days, according to an official there.
Further west, in Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, the largest city between Denver and Salt Lake City, the elections office saw a pop of activity from voters in recent days. Sheila Reiner, who runs elections there, knows why. All the news about Trump’s election commission.
“Our local newspaper and local media really picked up on it this week,” she says.
And it had an impact. In all of 2016, her office had just 30 voters ask for confidential status. Just this week, 60 of them did.
Because voters must fill out the form in person, Reiner gets to talk with them. Plenty, she says, told her they don’t think their personal information is any of the federal government’s business. If they ask about the downside of becoming a confidential voter, Reiner tells them they might get less mail or phone calls from political campaigns during election season. They like to hear that, she says. But another downside is voters can’t update their status online anymore if they move, or want to switch parties.
“The people who are signing up for it don’t mind it,” she says.
Up and to the left, in Colorado’s northwest county of Moffat, which borders Utah and Wyoming and has about 10,000 voters, it’s been a quieter week. Clerk Lila Herod says just one or two voters called or came in with questions.
Back in bustling Denver, elections director McReynolds was looking at data. Her office, she says, has already seen a 790 percent increase in email communications from voters compared with last year, a 247 percent increase in phone calls, and a 1,833 percent increase in walk-ins.
She also rounded up some comments from local voters.
“Due to the decision to have my information given without my permission, I would like to have the form sent to me that allows me to unregister as a voter,” one said. “Please send ASAP.”
“I’m afraid to withdraw my voter registration because some law or rule may change in the interim that won’t allow me to register again,” wrote another.
McReynolds says she responds to each one. Her message is she doesn’t want to lose voters.
“If you de-register,” she says, “they win.”
Shruti Kaul contributed to this report. Photo by Kelsey Ray