The Monday before Colorado's presidential primary election in March, Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder George Stern saw 0.6% of his jurisdiction’s voters had cast ballots in person. That same time this week, before Tuesday's state primary, the proportion was down to 0.2%.
“We actually tracked this pretty closely, of who these folks are,” Stern said. “We started doing that in March because we purposefully wanted to make some good communications efforts to lower that number.”
Statewide, 1,279,267 Coloradans had voted as of June 30 at noon, and only 5,257 of them — just over 0.4% — did so in person. This compared to 2.5% in the March election and 1.3% in the 2019 general election.
Stern said that, starting in March, county clerks talked weekly, and in some instances, daily, about how to communicate with voters about registering and updating their information online to receive a mail ballot without difficulty.
“Our sense was that most folks who were coming in did need to come in, but they wouldn’t have had to come in had they done things earlier,” he said. “It’s not that they just like coming in.”
Other county clerks said they saw the same thing, with residents voting in-person during the coronavirus pandemic only because they had to.
“Most in-person voters are people that didn’t receive a ballot because they forgot to update their address and it was then too late to receive a ballot in the mail,” said Brenda L. Corbett, the Clear Creek County clerk who had 24 in-person voters and 2,335 mail ballots as of Monday.
In Denver, a representative for the Elections Division said that by midday Tuesday, turnout had nearly matched that of the 2018 primary election, but was heavily dependent on ballot drop-offs and curbside pickup rather than in-person traffic.
Larimer County clerk and recorder Angela Myers said needing a replacement ballot or failing to receive one in the mail were the most common reasons for in-person voting. She had 137 in-person ballots cast out of approximately 79,000 by Monday.
“I have done a lot of outreach to the public that ‘please, don’t come into a vote center unless you absolutely have to',” Myers said. “I hope [the numbers are] a reflection of the outreach.”
Nationally, President Donald Trump has attacked mail balloting, writing last week on Twitter, with no evidence, that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS.”
NPR reports nearly one-quarter of all ballots in 2018 were cast by mail, and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold has come out as a forceful proponent of the state's system as a way to prevent infections from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We are in a pandemic, and mail ballots & early voting help with social distancing,” she wrote on Twitter.
Griswold, responding to executive orders from the governor, issued guidance to clerks in May for safeguarding in-person voting. The policies covered the physical locations for voting, protective equipment, required temperature checks for workers, and mandatory masks for everyone but voters. Generally, clerks fully backed the precautions, saying their election judges felt safe with plexiglass barriers, face coverings and repeated wipe-downs of equipment after each use.
“The actions we’ve taken are not overkill,” said Josh Zygielbaum, the Adams County clerk, whose county has the third-highest total of COVID-19 cases after Denver and Arapahoe.
Other election officials, particularly in rural, less-populated areas, were more restrained in their endorsement of the pandemic measures.
"A lot of people in our whole county are not really concerned. They think the mask and plastic shields and all that is overkill," said Washington County clerk Annie Kuntz. "But it is in the election rules, so that’s what we have to follow.”
As of Monday, when Washington County had experienced a total of 44 COVID-19 cases to date, 14 people had voted in-person this election. That group included one of the election administrators, a first-time voter, and someone who came into Akron for license plates, only to learn that the service was unavailable — so he voted instead.
“Because our county is such a big area, a lot of times people get here and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, let me do that while I’m in town’,” Kuntz said.
Congress appropriated $400 million for elections safety in the $1.8 trillion CARES Act in March.
Zygielbaum, the Adams County clerk, and Myers, the Larimer County clerk, said the proximity of the previous election in March likely was a factor in voters getting and using mail ballots. But, “people are pandemic-minded and they are being concerned about when they actually have to go in person to places," she noted.