If you drive to the main ballot drop box in Gunnison, an election worker in full-body protective equipment reaches over with a 6-foot “grabber” arm to push open the flap so you don’t have to touch anything while placing the envelope in the slot.
In Larimer County, election officials ask in-person voters to use one of the industrial-size containers of sanitizer to wipe down their driver’s license before handing it over for ID checks. Adams County gives each in-person voter a new pen they can take home or throw out to avoid reuse.
In Arapahoe and some other counties, voters can schedule a time to pick up a replacement ballot curbside and vote all in one trip.
Colorado began in-person early voting statewide Monday, and voters will find much changed to adapt to public health concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Across the state, counties have set up voting procedures meticulously designed to address health guidelines and voter fears about COVID-19, using money from the federal CARES Act to buy everything from gloves to cheap pens.
The polling locations and counting operations across the state feature plexiglass barriers to allow election officials and observers to sit next to each other during the ballot tally without spreading the disease. Urban voting districts, like Denver, are putting their in-person centers in massive high school gyms to spread out voters. Rural counties, like Gunnison, are setting up tents in parking lots and keeping people outdoors.
“We are boots on the ground and we have to be very proactive on everything we do and think how it’s going to affect the election,” said Angela Myers, Larimer County’s clerk and recorder. (In Colorado, the clerk’s office handles election operations in each county.)
The state’s clerks have the advantage of experience from June party primaries, where turnout was high and similar distancing and barrier techniques appeared to work well. Some grumbled that the secretary of state’s COVID-19 guidelines in May were too late to be helpful, however, and not all are adhering to each recommendation because the clerks advocate for flexibility. One guideline that raised some objections suggested that clerks require a temperature check at the door for election employees and poll watchers.
One possible hiccup in the system — masks or no masks — does not appear to concern many of Colorado’s disaster-ready clerks.
State and local guidelines strongly encourage voters to wear masks at polling places, but do not require them. Clerks said they will have extra masks available if voters want them. In addition, in-person voters will be asked to sanitize their hands, and private voting booths will be sanitized after each use.
“All of our layouts have been blessed by health officials along the way in Larimer County,” Myers said. “In the primary we had no cases in judges, or related to the election, that we know of, and the same protocols will be in place in this election.”
Colorado is set up well to weather the pandemic for even a high-turnout election like this year. Mail ballots have been sent to every registered voter in statewide elections since 2013.
Colorado election officials are recommending that voters only vote in person if necessary to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. The majority of voters hand-return ballots to secure, video-monitored drop boxes provided by counties. Some mail back their ballots. Many in-person voters are used to early in-person voting from other years and will take advantage of that to distance themselves — Colorado’s first wave of in-person sites opened Oct. 19. Larger counties, including Denver, will open subsequent waves of large, early voting sites as Election Day nears.
In most years, only a small percentage vote in-person. Denver estimates more than 90% of the city’s voters will mail or drop off their ballot before the ballots close at 7 p.m. Nov. 3. That will help election officials keep voters separated.
A federal CARES Act provided $6.7 million to the Secretary of State’s Office to help pay for many of the counties’ pandemic adaptations. Denver asked for $233,000, Elections Director Jocelyn Bucaro said, to pay for plexiglass barriers and cover the cost of curbside dropoff and renting larger voting spaces.
In Denver, judges will check in voters and their IDs from behind plexiglass shields, while wearing masks. Judges not behind plexiglass will wear gloves and face shields. Voting booths are 6 feet apart and cleaned after every vote. The secrecy sleeves voters use to take completed ballots to the drop slot will be laminated so they can be sanitized and reused, Bucaro said.
Denver and other counties will offer curbside replacement ballot pickup for those who never received a ballot or made a mistake and want a new ballot.
In Gunnison County, the busiest voting center will be a tent in the parking lot of the Gunnison government center. Staff and election judges will wear medical grade personal protective suits, and use “the longest grabbers we could find” to take driver’s licenses for in-person ID checks or to accept ballots from drive up voters, said Clerk and Recorder Kathy Simillion.
Voters can either stay in their cars to fill out the long, multi-issue ballots, and return them via the grabbers as they drive off, or use machines accommodating people with disabilities inside the tent.
“The reason we had to push it outdoors is because we can’t get 6-foot distances in the narrow hallways of our beautiful older building,” Simillion said.
Gunnison County will have five drop boxes this year, four more than usual. The judge pushing in the flap at the main drop box is an added touch. “We’re just trying to protect our judges and staff and our voters,” Simillion said. “If people think it’s a little extreme or silly, we’re still going to do everything we can to protect everybody.”
Distancing and sanitizing will carry through to Colorado’s counting centers as well. Whenever possible, clerks are separating the counting operations from the voting sites, to minimize traffic and reduce the chance of virus transmission.
Plexiglass barriers are key to preserving the traditional system of bipartisan monitoring teams watching how ballots are handled, disputed or counted, clerks said. The barriers allow two monitors to look at the same ballot when they can’t be 6 feet apart.
Larimer County’s counting staff and monitors are asked to stay in their space, wear masks, and not congregate in break rooms or common areas, Myers said. “And no potluck, which is a big loss, because that’s always part of the fun,” she added.
Colorado allows mailed and drop-off ballots to be opened and counted 15 days before an election meaning the bulk of results and the likely outcome of most races will be available soon after voting ends Nov. 3.
Denver moved its central in-person voting site out of the election office and across Civic Park to the McNichols Center building to separate it from counting operations, Bucaro said. Denver will use the atrium of the elections office, where it used to have voting booths, to station more processing clerks instead, she added. The HVAC system has been tuned up to promote maximum clean air flow.
Clerks around the state offered some key tips to ease voting as the pandemic continues to threaten Coloradans’ health:
- Vote at home and drop it off. You’re choosing the distance from other voters, and avoiding any rush
- Wear a mask near or in a voting space
- If voting in person, leave extra time, because Colorado has complex questions on the ballot this year.
- Don’t worry too much about your signature. Technology compares your current signature to multiple past signatures, and can account for changes over time, clerks said. If you do get a signature rejection, go to your county clerk’s website to start curing your ballot.
Correction: This story was updated Oct. 20, 2020, at 3:06 p.m. to correctly describe guidance from the Colorado Secretary of State on temperature checks for election workers.
Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.
This story was produced as part of a project with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.