Voting is a fundamental civil right, but some Aurora residents are questioning whether the process is actually democratic.
The questions began Oct. 27 when a fully loaded dump truck struck and damaged a ballot box outside of a church in Aurora.
The truck hit the ballot box so hard that it was ripped out of the concrete pad it was bolted into. The ballot box will not be replaced before Election Day, Nov. 7.
“Is this a coincidence that shortly after the ballots are dropped, the ballot drop box gets damaged and removed and I’m a candidate for City Council at large, and it’s at my church with my name on the outside of the church and you can’t tell me who hit it and you cannot replace it until after the election?” said Thomas Mayes, the pastor at Living Water Christian Center Church, where the box was removed.
Mayes is one of four candidates running for two at-large City Council seats on Tuesday. Two of the candidates are incumbents.
Adams County officials said the crash was unintentional and that all ballots were still secured after the crash. But the ballot box won’t be replaced in time for a planned get-out-the-vote event on Sunday, Adams County Clerk and Recorder Josh Zygielbaum said.
“Unfortunately, it’s too close to the election to pour new concrete in, to set, before they can replace the box,” said Zygielbaum, whose office manages elections in Adams County.
The drop-off box will be restored before the presidential primary in March, he said.
Hiring election workers is challenging, Zygielbaum said, but the county is hoping to station election officials at the church from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday; and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day.
Laws, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, prohibit racially discriminatory voting tactics and policies. But communities of color, people who are homeless, people with fixed or low incomes and people with disabilities, for example, are still facing obstacles when voting.
After the ballot box was damaged, the leader of a statewide organization working to maintain a fair electoral system received calls from several people who said they were concerned the crash was intentional.
“I think when this happens in a community of color, it’s pretty natural for folks to wonder about that,” said Wendy Howell, state director of the Colorado Working Families Party. “Clearly, when you have this community being impacted, and they’re already impacted by so many other things, special care needs to be taken.”
Mayes said he suspects the crash was intentional because of his political involvement in the community.
The ballot box at the church has been an important part of his campaign messaging. He’s stated many times that he fought hard to have it placed there in 2019 to encourage people who don’t normally vote — such as people of color, older adults, Spanish-speaking community members and people who are homeless — to participate in elections.
Mayes was also a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the city and several Aurora police officers and department leaders that alleged excessive force and civil rights violations after a 2020 violin vigil honoring Elijah McClain was ended by Aurora police wearing riot gear. Former Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson ordered law enforcement to disperse the crowd.
Police used chemical agents and batons to disperse the crowd at the lawn at the Aurora Municipal Center, the lawsuit says, after musicians playing stringed instruments demanded justice for McClain during a demonstration. In February, the city settled and paid $750,000 to protesters. McClain, who played the violin, died after he was detained by Aurora Police in 2019.
Mayes also sits on Aurora’s community police task force, which develops recommendations to improve effective and transparent communication between the Aurora Police Department and the community, and he’s an executive committee member for the NAACP Aurora Chapter.
His church and leaders of more than 40 other faith communities plan to host an event Sunday to encourage members and neighbors to vote, Mayes said.
There are several low income apartment complexes near Living Waters and Mayes said residents there don’t normally vote if it’s inconvenient.
The event on Sunday will commence as planned outside the church at 10:45 a.m., Mayes added.
County officials said they will station election workers there on Sunday to collect ballots from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Zygielbaum said.
The next-closest ballot boxes to the church are a 20-minute walk or 5-minute drive away at Martin Luther King Jr. Library and at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, which is about a 30-minute walk or 5-minute drive away.
“We’ve already missed several days when people could have put their ballots in there,” Mayes said. “They’re not going to walk another mile to the Martin Luther King Library or over to Anschutz to drop off a ballot.”
“We’re in a community where, other than the bus, there are not a lot of people with a lot of transportation,” he added. “They’re struggling trying to make sure they have food in their homes. This is a hangout for many people who are homeless and that’s one reason why we wanted the box there because we wanted to make sure those people are registered and get a chance to vote.”
The Colorado Working Families Party is reaching out to other community and advocacy groups to see if the organizations can offer rides to nearby poll sites for voters who can’t make it to the alternative locations, Howell said.
The destruction of the ballot box highlights long-simmering tensions over voting access and caps decades of frustrations, Mayes said.
Ballot boxes are placed in public-serving county and municipal buildings, college campuses and other places where it would be convenient for people to vote, Zygielbaum said. Adams County has security teams who check ballot boxes daily and the structures are surveilled with video footage 24/7, he said.
Adams County notified the Secretary of State’s office about the downed ballot box, reviewed video of the crash and worked with election workers to try to resolve voter-access problems, Zygielbaum said. The Aurora Police Department is conducting a separate investigation and may issue a citation for property damage.
“It is still very early in this investigation, so any citations, intention or suspect information is not yet available,” an Aurora police spokeswoman said. A police report was not available this week.
Zygielbaum said workers were doing construction in the parking lot where the crash happened. But Mayes said he was never notified that any construction work would be done in the church’s parking lot.
“It still makes it suspicious to me even though it does appear to be an accident,” he said. “There are still questions. Why was the truck in our parking lot? Our parking lot is not small. What were they even doing in there? There were no other cars there. It’s almost like they hit it on purpose.”
However, he said, if church leaders keep community members informed during the investigation, the crash may have an unintended effect on voter turnout during this election cycle and beyond.
“I think if we handle it correctly, it may get the people to vote, even more,” Mayes said last week. “That’s what I want to happen.”