As Donald Trump Pushes Disinformation, Colorado Election Officials Reassure Public on Voting

The president’s tweets are creating questions about mail-in ballots and the Postal Service even in states with established systems.
  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Sandra Fish is a data journalist who’s covered campaign finance in Colorado for 20 years. She also teaches students at University of Colorado Boulder, and has written about politics for national outlets. In 2020 Fish, as she is known, will provide training and technical support for Colorado newsrooms participating in First Draft News’ mis-/dis-information training and campaign finance data analysis and reporting.

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More than 1.6 million Coloradans turned out for the June primary two months ago.

Fewer than 11,000 voted in person at polling places, where coronavirus precautions were in place. Instead, voters across the state took the ballots they received in the mail and returned them primarily to drop-off boxes.

The voting methods in Colorado are customary and date back to 2013, when the all-mail ballot system went statewide for all elections. Yet Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold and county clerks from both parties now find themselves defending a system that was added as an option for Colorado counties back in 1993.

That’s because President Donald Trump is making constant attacks on the validity of mail-in ballots via his Twitter account and public statements. Ironically, the Republican parties in New Mexico, Ohio, Illinois, Arizona and other states are asking their voters to request mailed absentee ballots and included Trump’s photo on some mailings as encouragement. Elections officials say absentee ballots – mailed to voters and returned either in person or by mail – are essentially identical to mail-in ballots.

“Election officials around the country have told me that their phones are ringing off the hook with voters asking if it’s still safe to vote by mail,” said Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections for the nonpartisan Democracy Fund, which supports initiatives to strengthen democracy in the U.S. “They’re asking about the fraud narrative, which is unfounded.

“For the first time, we have an electorate that has been living through a global pandemic now for many months,” she said. “And in this moment, we also have this national narrative that’s calling into question the legitimacy of voting by mail.”

Many of the questions elections officials are fielding more than two months before the election emerge from the national conversation. Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association and a former Jefferson County clerk, emphasized that elections are actually operated by county officials in Colorado with oversight from the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We see a fundamental misunderstanding of how things work state to state,” Anderson said.

Colorado counties were first authorized to conduct all-mail-ballot elections during odd years starting in 1993 and in primary elections beginning in 2008, though statewide general elections still required a trip to the precinct polling place. In 2013, the General Assembly enacted mail balloting for all statewide elections.

The state also automatically registers people to vote when they get drivers licenses or through other government services. They’ll later get a card in the mail allowing them to opt out of registration or select a party affiliation.

Voters can check and update their registration online, and even register at polling places on Election Day. When ballots are returned, voter signatures are validated by a bipartisan team of elections officials.

“We have extremely clean elections, our elections work really well,” Griswold said. “One of the reasons that we’re considered one of the secure states to cast a ballot is because of mail ballots, because they are a lot safer from cyber attack. You can’t hack a piece of paper.”

Trump raises questions about mail ballots, and polls show declining trust by voters

As the president assails voting by mail from his Twitter account, Trump and his wife Melania submitted mail ballots in the recent Florida primary election.

“Certainly we’re seeing (disinformation) from the pulpit of the president, and that creates a much more intense communications environment” for election officials, said Anderson at the state clerks association. “What’s not unusual is having to educate voters on what the trusted information is, their elections and what is or is not relevant to the elections we conduct here in Colorado.”

Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham, a Republican, recently authored a newspaper column decrying the spread of disinformation about the elections. “I can no longer listen to the rhetoric that Colorado’s mail ballot system is at risk in the upcoming general election,” he wrote.

“Colorado’s election system is considered the ‘gold standard’ for other states to follow,” he added.

But voters are still expressing concerns, including Ruben Ramirez, a 55-year-old Denver resident. “It appears to me to be a campaign of trying to sow confusion to make it look like on Nov. 4 we’ll wake up and nobody will know who won, and Trump can just claim he won or claim that there was fraud without any evidence,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez posted to his Highlands neighborhood NextDoor group encouraging people to register to vote. “I’m always concerned about what a low percentage of voter turnout we have in the United States in general,” he told The Sun. “To me this is an extremely important election.”

Despite the national debate, 66% of likely voters support universal mail-in ballots, according to a national survey conducted in July by a group of academics at four universities who were studying the coronavirus pandemic. Of the 307 Coloradans surveyed, 86% said they voted by mail in 2016, but only 80% said they planned to vote by mail in November. The figure is within the 7% margin of error for the state’s results but still concerns election officials.

Meanwhile, a recent Pew Research survey indicated that nearly half of U.S. voters expect to have difficulty voting in the Nov. 3 election. That compares with only 15% who said the same in 2018.

Questions abound about mail delivery, though most Coloradans return ballots in person

The Democracy Fund’s Patrick worked as an elections compliance officer in Phoenix and served on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, where she focused on mail voting. She said accusations that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is slowing down mail service to potentially hinder mail-in voting are bigger threats in states where mail ballots haven’t been widely used, rather than experienced ones.

“Of course in Colorado, most people drop them off at the drop boxes,” Patrick said.

But she said “for those voters who can’t get out of the house for a variety of concerns, they’re going to want to make sure that they get it back in the mail as early as possible.”

Even Griswold said her office is hearing concerns about mail slowdowns. “One of the biggest things we’re hearing is just, ‘Is the post office going to deliver my ballot? Is it going to return the ballot?’”

Griswold said she’s also concerned about DeJoy’s actions and said she’s been in touch with the post office administrators and workers to get more information. But she noted that the vast majority of voters use drop boxes to return their ballots, bypassing the mail.

Ballots will begin to go out Oct. 9, and voters can check GoVoteColorado to see when their ballot is mailed and track when it is received by the county clerk’s office.

Griswold said there will be more than 350 drop boxes in the state’s 64 counties. “Traditionally about 75% of mail ballots are returned to drop boxes. There is a good chance that drop boxes will be used even more than they have in the past,” she said.

The drop boxes are monitored by video cameras and are emptied daily by bipartisan teams of election workers.

Anderson said Coloradans with questions about voting should check their county elections website. All active voters — those with a verified, working address — receive mail ballots. “We’re very lucky here in Colorado because a ballot is going to go to every registered and eligible elector that has all the information in it that tells them where their drop off is, where their vote-in-person options are, if they need them,” she said.

In the final eight days before the election, Griswold recommends voters return ballots to drop boxes or county clerks offices. That’s especially true in rural areas, Anderson said.

“I have a lot of confidence in our collaboration with the U.S. Postal Service,” Anderson said. “I personally am in close contact with them, as well as the Secretary of State’s Office. We will be working overtime to make sure that Colorado voters have confidence.”

This story is a part of Misinformation Watch Colorado, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), edited by The Colorado Sun with support from the Colorado Media Project.