With the East Troublesome fire approaching his home, Jim Johnson hurried to the family desk to grab the computer and other electronics. Sitting next to the computer: his mail ballot and the one belonging to his wife.
He grabbed them, put them in his briefcase and the couple hit the road about 20 minutes after receiving a mandatory evacuation order, fleeing Estes Park, where they have lived for 22 years.
Nancy Johnson says she plans to return to Estes Park by Nov. 3, where she and her husband will drop them in a box at the municipal building. But should the fire continue to bear down on the town, they have them. “Just in case,” she said.
The wildfires raging in Colorado led state and local election officials to scramble into action to help thousands of voters in Larimer and Grand counties who evacuated from the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.
The fires forced officials to temporarily close and evacuate one polling location in Estes Park, and bipartisan election judges rushed to empty ballot drop boxes in the town as the fire enclosed the town. Those drop boxes are now closed, and the ballots that were in them are safe. Two polling locations in Grand County were under pre-evacuation status, but they have since been cleared.
In Larimer County, which includes Fort Collins, about 113,000 people voted through midday Monday, or about 41% of registered voters, according to state figures. In Grand County, about 4,200 people had voted, or about 32% of registered voters. It’s not clear how many of them live within the fire zones.
Now officials are working to inform voters on their options for casting a ballot, whether they have them or not.
The Secretary of State’s Office this week announced another option for improving accessibility — voters affected by the fires can vote using the state’s emergency electronic ballot delivery system.
The secure, online system allows voters to print out a ballot and all the necessary paperwork, including an envelope, needed to submit a ballot at a drop box. Officials encourage voters not to mail their ballots after Monday to ensure it arrives on time and gets counted.
Colorado voters who need a replacement ballot can request one at any voter service and polling center in their county. For voters forced outside their county, they can request to vote a statewide ballot and vote from anywhere in the state. Voters who already have their ballot can drop it in any drop box in the state, and election officials say they will ensure that ballot makes it back to their home county.
Many of the measures are the result of policy changes enacted in the past decade that made it easier for Coloradans to vote.
“All of those features were always good for voters and are particularly good for voters now,” said Amanda Gonzalez, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, an organization that advocates for policies to make voting more accessible.
Angela Myers is the clerk in Larimer County where the Cameron Peak fire and part of the East Troublesome fire are located. She encouraged county residents to reach out to her office if they need help voting. But, she recognized, for those who fear losing their homes, “this may not be the highest on their priority list quite yet.”
For the Johnsons, that couldn’t be more true, as the couple continues to grapple with a dangerous fire and the coronavirus pandemic. “Our priorities changed,” Nancy Johnson said. “So (voting) is kind of all in the background for us.”
Colorado Sun Chief Technology Officer Eric Lubbers contributed to this report.