Feature: Colorado Model is the Path Forward For Reform

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

This week we're introducing the first column of what will be an ongoing series, where we share best practices—reforms at the state and local levels, reforms that work, and reforms that point the way forward for the democracy movement. We're accepting topics & interviews from our partners; contact Getachew Kassa at gkassa@democracyinitiative.org for pitches.

Recently, we talked with Colorado Deputy Secretary of State and former Common Cause Vice President of State Operations Jenny Flanagan about Colorado’s voting model to learn more about the system, what works well, and what lessons can be lifted for other states.

Colorado has been called “the safest state for voting,” and boasts some of the most reliably high voter turnout of any state. The state’s reputation for strong elections stems from its long history of frequent, robust reform, with early voting starting back in 1996, and no-excuse absentee ballots as far back as 1980. But the current version of Colorado’s voting model really crystallized in 2013 with the passage of the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, which instituted a broad suite of reforms including election-day registration and a bipartisan elections modernization task force to propose election security and access reform.

One of the unique programs that came out of this process is Colorado’s mail ballot delivery approach. “We created a model where everyone gets their ballot by mail but they can return it in many different ways, and that’s where the convenience for the voter comes in,” said Flanagan.

The second was the creation of Voter Service and Polling Centers, or “polling centers” as they’re known. “These locations are our polling places that are open during early voting and on Election Day,” said Flanagan, “they can do anything they need to do in these Voter Service and Polling Centers; it’s like going to your county clerk’s office.”

The results of Colorado’s policies speak for themselves. These reforms, along with a wide array of voting reforms including AVR, same day registration, no excuse absentee, and others, have improved Colorado’s turnout and civic engagement dramatically. “In the year 2000, Colorado was nineteenth in the nation in terms of turnout. In 2018, Colorado was second. In the 2018 midterms, the national average turnout stood at roughly 50%. Colorado’s midterm turnout reached 63%,” said Flanagan.

The key, Flanagan claims, is constant, sustainable, and collaborative reform efforts that reflects and reacts to the latest experiences and challenges facing voters. The development of Colorado’s robust model “happened over the course of time, and the combined effort and sustained reform made the difference.” In fact, much of the strength of Colorado’s voting model can be attributed to its attention to voter experience; their design and implementation reflect data collected from Colorado’s communities themselves. During the reform process, leading groups on the ground, such as Flanagan’s former organization Common Cause, made sure to bring local communities, election officials and grassroots groups to the table: “I think it was the relationships, the coming together of the key stakeholders that made it possible. Whomever is engaging the citizenry needs to be at the table because they know the experience of the people they’re trying to mobilize,” said Flanagan.

The collaboration and data collection of the advocacy community primarily occurred through the national Election Protection program. “The Election Protection program, which many states participate in, supports voters and tracks issues that arise during elections. That’s where we understood where long lines were happening, where voters were having problems, having their vote by mail ballots or absentee ballots rejected, whether it was a signature problem; it’s through the work that the civic engagement or voting rights community is doing that we gather data interfacing with voters” said Flanagan. Centering the experiences of Colorado’s communities produced reforms that address the real problems that face voters.

The model also supplemented its dataset with information from the other key stakeholders: election officials. “Election officials are similarly collecting data, and they’re interfacing with voters, and they’re experiencing data collection of their own, in what they perceive voters to be experiencing,” said Flanagan. The combination of these data sets produced a common set of data, Flanagan said, “it’s a basis on which to solve [the] problem.” This basis is crucial to creating meaningful, comprehensive reform. The shared dataset created room for dialogue that produced a model that prioritizes accessibility for Colorado’s voters, and ease of administration by continuing to facilitate accessibility for voters while instituting reforms proven to increase new voter participation.

When asked about the cost to the state of Colorado of implementing these reforms, Flanagan responded that “there are cost to consider, but these are investments we need to make, and as policy makers and election officials, we have to serve our voters. And I think that’s very consistent across the board from the message I hear from election officials who are there to serve voters.”

Fortunately, in most cases, Flanagan said that “what we’ve seen is that the reforms we’re talking about will reduce costs, even if there’s upfront costs that have to be factored in. Electronic poll books, for example, might cost money up front but will reduce your costs down the road—because you’re going to have better information, your voters are going to move through, you’re going to have less provisional ballots, and you’re going to get people in the right place voting on the correct ballot. If we approach things holistically, I think we’ll find that many of these election reforms are saving us money down the road.”

Colorado’s voting model serves as an example to many states, and its continued success sets the benchmark for what’s possible for reform at the state level. “When you’re looking at increasing access to vote by mail, whether that’s through an absentee balloting process or through permanent absentee options, we’ve been doing it for a long time, as has Oregon and Washington, and there are lessons to be learned about how to verify ballots, how to guard against fraud in mail ballot—which people are concerned about. Let’s talk about how we’ve addressed that in a state that’s been doing vote by mail for decades, as more states are trying to move that as an option for voting” said Flanagan. Further, Colorado’s registration system, with modern electronic databases and automated updates, provides concrete examples of election “There are lessons that I think can apply whether or not you adopt the whole model” Flanagan said.

As we fight to establish a 21st century democracy, the Colorado model increasingly appears like the future of elections. Thanks to the constant work of the voting rights community and the grassroots, Colorado has created a model that strengthens our democracy and empowers voters. Colorado has and continues to lead the way on this reform. The biggest takeaway, according to Flanagan, “is that we can create voter-centered elections. It’s been proven that it can be done, and it enables more people to participate. And that’s what we should be in the business of doing, as election administrators. That’s our job: to make elections something that people can trust in.”

For further reading on the impact of the Colorado model's policies, check out Nonprofit Vote's 2018 report.