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Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Iowa and New Hampshire are synonymous with presidential primary politics, serving as a litmus test for candidates in every election cycle.  

But they’ll need to make room for Colorado, too. 

Colorado voters will be among the first able to cast presidential primary ballots in 2020. That’s because mail-in ballots will be sent to voters 22 days before Colorado’s primary Election Day on March 3, known as Super Tuesday.

That send-out date falls on Feb. 10, one day before New Hampshire’s scheduled primary. (Iowa’s caucuses, set for Feb. 3, still are first.)

Colorado elections officials say some voters could receive ballots the same day as New Hampshire’s primary — mainly ones who live in Denver and the surrounding area —  though most will have to wait until later that week. But for presidential hopefuls seeking every vote, they’ll need to spread some love in Colorado as early as they would in Iowa or New Hampshire or risk losing votes.

That could be among the reasons that Colorado has seen a small parade of Democratic presidential candidates passing through in recent months. So far, Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, New York U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and author Marianne Williamson have all made stops or held fundraisers in the state. 

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spoke at an April campaign rally in Aurora. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

That’s not to mention appearances by former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and the state’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, both of whom are also running in the crowded Democratic primary field. 

On Friday, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris is expected to become the latest candidate to stump in Colorado, holding a rally at Manual High School in Denver.  

“It’s something we’re most definitely looking at. California is similar,” said Joe Calvello, Western press secretary for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “It’s why we’re paying such close attention. It’s why we have staff there already.  We’re making sure we are talking to voters and activating our volunteer base.”

Sanders, who won Colorado’s 2016 caucuses over Hillary Clinton, is slated to visit the state in the coming months.

But, as one Democratic presidential campaign operative put it, the focus right now primarily is on “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.”

By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, Nevada will have held its caucus (Feb. 22) and South Carolina will have completed its primary election (Feb. 29). Colorado’s three-week-long Election Day officially ends on the same date as 13 other states — hence the Super Tuesday moniker

Voters drop off their ballots at the Denver Election Commission office in Denver on Nov. 6, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Early-voting states revel in their importance and work to protect it. The competition for attention from states like Colorado, that let voters cast ballots weeks or days in advance, has not gone unnoticed.

Californians can also vote ahead of their primary Election Day on Super Tuesday, a fact that’s caused some consternation in Iowa. The Des Moines Register went so far as to write a story about the competition over its “prized caucuses.”

“We actually have not had any complaints or concerns from the national party,” said Morgan Carroll, who chairs the Colorado Democratic Party. “There’s a chance that a sophisticated campaign is going to realize that they better get to Colorado sooner because we’re going to vote so early.”

Carroll said the state party has been working to educate campaigns about Colorado’s voter laws so they know “you need to do whatever you need to do to win your campaign before ballots drop.”

One thing working against Colorado’s new reputation as an important early primary state: “The majority of people do vote in that last week and even just the last two days,” said Serena Woods, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. 

For the 2018 election, the pace of ballots returned in Colorado didn’t really shoot up until about five days before the election. At that point, the steady stream turned into an all-out waterfall. It’s also possible Colorado voters could wait to cast their ballots until they see how candidates do in other states’ primaries.

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17-year-old voters and four consecutive elections

Beyond Colorado now being among the earliest states to cast primary ballots, there are a host of other notable election firsts happening between now and the 2020 general election. 

First, 17-year-olds will be able to participate in both the presidential and statewide primary elections for the first time. That’s because a law passed by the Colorado legislature allows teens who will turn 18 by the general election to cast a primary ballot. 

Teens should preregister (they can do so starting at age 16) to receive a primary ballot in the mail. 

This will also be Colorado’s first presidential primary since 2000. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 107 deciding to move away from the caucus system for picking parties’ presidential nominees. (Caucuses still will be used for statewide races to help pick who lands on the primary ballot.)

The 10 candidates, including Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, from the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates in Miami and hosted by NBC News. (Provided by NBC News)

It will also be the first time unaffiliated voters will get their say in either the Democratic or Republican presidential primary. 

“And this is the first one we will do under our current model of mail-in ballots,” said Hilary Rudy, Colorado’s deputy election director.

(Presidential candidates can get on Colorado’s primary ballot by paying $500 or by submitting 5,000 signatures from residents, in case you were wondering.)

The presidential primary is just one of four — you read that right, four — statewide elections that will be held through the 2020 general Election Day. 

Here are the dates:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019: Voters will decide on a number of ballot questions
  • Tuesday, March 3, 2020: Voters will decide the presidential primary 
  • Tuesday, June 30. Voters will decide primary contests for statehouse positions and U.S. House seats, as well as the party nominees in the marquee U.S. Senate race
  • Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020: Colorado voters will elect a president, a U.S. senator, seven U.S. representatives and dozens of state lawmakers

Remember, all of those elections will have mail-in ballots sent out weeks in advance, so for roughly a year voters might feel like they are in a perpetual, 12-month Election Day. 

Some of the busiest people in Colorado will be the state’s elections officials, who have already been working for months to prepare for the onslaught. That’s meant helping county clerks and shoring up election security mechanisms. 

“It’s going to be a pretty busy season, but we are doing a lot to get prepared for it,” Rudy said.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....