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The polling center at the Denver elections office downtown includes signs encouraging voters to maintain social distancing on June 17, 2020. The poll workers are also sitting behind plexiglass dividers. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The start of early in-person voting this week in Colorado marks a key test for officials across the state on how to conduct an election in the middle of a pandemic.

The June 30 statewide primary will serve as a trial run for the all-important November election and offer clues about whether the emergency public health rules issued by Secretary of State Jena Griswold will make voters comfortable enough to cast ballots.

Colorado is a mail-ballot state and the vast majority — 97% or more — of voters return ballots or drop them at approved locations. But that still means each election thousands of people still head to the polls to touch a screen or bubble in a circle for their favored candidates.

The county clerks who oversee elections are encouraging voters to drop off their ballots — it’s too late to mail them, officials advise — and some are making extra accommodations to help encourage social distancing, temperature checks, face coverings and other prevention measures amid the coronavirus. 

In Denver, people can register to vote curbside rather than go inside a polling center. In Pueblo, officials are asking voters to call ahead before attending a voting center so ballots can be ready for voters upon arrival. In Jefferson County, a mobile voting center will serve as a backup in case of a COVID-19 outbreak at a polling center.

“We very much would prefer that they take care of themselves and everyone around them, but we will not turn anyone away from voting,” said Angela Meyers, the Larimer County clerk. “We will hurry folks through as quickly as we can and sanitize properly afterward.”

Election officials warn about election night reporting delays

The new public health requirements require more spacing and reduced the number of election workers behind the scenes to verify voter signatures and process ballots, so clerks are warning people to expect delays in reporting the results.

“It’s going to take a little longer to count the ballots,” said Paul López, the Denver clerk. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not secure.”

Colorado election officials are mindful of the long lines and problems in other states — such as Georgia and Wisconsin — and used those experiences to help write the emergency rules the state issued.

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In an interview Monday, Griswold, a Democrat, said “we are very lucky Colorado is so well positioned because we do have mail ballots.” But when it comes to polling centers she said the state wants “to make sure voting continues to be as accessible as possible.”

The new rules told county clerks to conduct health checks for poll workers, clean voting equipment after each use and provide a backup voting location in case of COVID-19 contamination. Griswold touted the rules as the most comprehensive in the nation, but some clerks pushed back on the initial draft in a seven-page letter that listed a host of problems. The state built caveats into the requirements, so not all counties will comply with each recommendation. Masks are recommended for voters but not required.

Through the federal stimulus bill known as the CARES Act, the Secretary of State’s Office  received $6.7 million, some of which was used to add 100 new dropboxes in select counties and make other preparations, such as providing personal protective equipment to poll workers.

Griswold said she’s confident the state’s mail ballot system means Colorado will avoid the long lines that plagued other states. “These rules are to ensure the voting experience is as safe as possible,” she said.

Amid the coronavirus, officials removed chairs and added more spacing inside the lobby at the Denver elections office ahead of the June 30 primary. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

County clerks get creative with new options to help voters

The changes are readily evident inside the Denver elections division office downtown.

The voting booths are well-spaced, and so are the chairs where people wait for their number to be called. When voters approach a poll worker to get a ballot, the interaction is separated by plexiglass. The ballot secrecy sleeves are laminated in order to wipe them down between uses, just like other election equipment. Starting Tuesday, voters can pick up ballots curbside at all voting centers that offer drive-through ballot drop-off.

“This is a mail-ballot state,” said López, the Denver clerk. “People don’t have to come in. We’ve been socially distancing before it was cool.”

Tiffany Parker, the La Plata County clerk and president of the statewide clerks association, said her county was hesitant to take temperatures of employees, media and observers, as recommended by the state. But the county’s two polling locations have been able to comply with all other protocols instructed by the secretary of state. 

Parker says she reduced the number of election judges to accommodate social distancing, but doesn’t expect a major impact because the turnout for in-person voting is typically low. While COVID-19 has put restrictions on almost every other aspect of in-person voting, Parker said having a backup plan is nothing new given existing contingencies like bad weather and natural disasters.

“For La Plata County, I have two locations that will be open, but I have a third, at our fairgrounds, that would be our backup,” she said. “We all have backup contingency plans, which we’ve already always had. Because you never know; we’re in Colorado.” 

Meanwhile, Pueblo Clerk Gilbert Ortiz foresees an extremely low number of in-person voters or long wait times at the county’s only location. With the mail-in ballot option, Pueblo is seeing unprecedented response for a primary.

Pueblo County is asking its voters who do want or need to vote in-person to call ahead so the process can be seamless when they arrive and less time is spent indoors. 

“I feel like people just know better to do everything they can to avoid coming into close proximity with people,” Ortiz said. “But it’s what we don’t know about COVID-19 that scares everybody and me included.” 

Jefferson County, Colorado’s fourth-largest county, is getting creative with its backup plans in case of an outbreak at a polling station. 

Clerk George Stern said they have spread out the locations geographically to make voting as accessible as possible. New this year, Jefferson County is implementing a mobile voting center. 

A trailer with voting equipment — which is sanitized just the same as permanent voting centers — will travel throughout the county to register new voters, collect ballots and more. In the case that a polling center has an outbreak, Stern says he can pull the mobile site into the same parking lot and not miss a beat. 

“We are particularly excited about it because while it’s serving its clear purpose during a pandemic, in November if we’ve returned to some sense of normalcy, I can park this outside Red Rocks or parades or community events,” Stern said.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.