It’s an election year with federal and state officers set to appear on the ballot. But really, every year is an election year in Colorado with a host of school board and municipal offices, and statewide tax initiatives put to voters in odd-numbered years. Colorado citizens are engaged: according to Secretary of State statistics, we have more than 2.8 million active registered voters as of Jan. 1, 2014. Registration statistics also show an electorate almost evenly distributed among Republican, Democratic, and unaffiliated party labels and split nearly 50/50 along gender lines. In 2012, Colorado’s voter turnout was 65.6% of the voting age population, the sixth highest among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Administration (EAC) 2012 Voting Survey.
Beyond the numbers, Colorado has been a national leader in expanding the opportunity for citizens to register to vote and to cast their ballots. The U.S. Constitution and federal law allow a lot of room for states to run their own elections and create a process that works for their own population (the EAC focuses on distributing federal grant money and setting voluntary recommendations for items such as voting equipment standards). Colorado’s system is designed to enable every eligible voter to participate and to count each vote in a timely, reliable and secure fashion. The Colorado Constitution also includes state judges on our ballots through retention elections—a middle-ground approach among states whose judges are appointed only and those that run full-fledged partisan elections for judges.
How We Vote
For years, many Colorado counties have been moving toward more flexibility for voters than just opening the polls for 12 hours of election day voting. In the 2012 presidential election year, more than 80% of voters in Colorado voted before the first Tuesday in November. Different counties offered various in-person early voting options and made it possible to request a mail ballot that could be returned by mail or at designated county drop-off locations.
Last year’s Colorado Voter Access and Modernized Election Act (COVAME) largely standardized how we vote in Colorado, and voters in all counties are now given the same options. All counties must provide a certain number of voting service and polling centers (based on the population of that county) that are open for the early voting period—including at least one weekend day. At these centers, voters may register to vote for the first time, vote in person, change addresses, or otherwise update their voter registration records. In addition, all registered voters receive a ballot mailed to their home address, which may be returned by mail, at a drop-off location, or at a center. Voters can still vote on Election Day, either in-person or by dropping off their ballot.
To be an eligible voter, you must have lived in Colorado at least 22 days before the election, but eligible citizens can register up to and including Election Day at a center. These centers operate with live “e-pollbooks” connected to the state voter database to check registration status and to ensure duplicate votes are not cast.
The type of identification required for voting has been a popular national topic in recent years. Colorado does not require voters to present photo identification, but there is a list of required documents in law and regulations that must be shown when voting in person or the first time a voter uses a mail ballot. Subsequent voting by mail ballot is verified through a signature that is compared to past identifications in the county system. Trained election workers and sophisticated specialty computer programs compare signatures to verify identity on mail ballots. The changes in Colorado’s system last year did not alter the identification or signature requirements.
Overall, the new system has been praised by most county clerks, although some have critiqued the increased cost of training more election judges or mailing more ballots to voters. Colorado’s system has received some national attention, as the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration spent the last year examining causes of (and possible solutions to) long lines in the 2012 election throughout the country. The Commission held its regional hearing in Denver last summer, and its recently released report recommends that states adopt many items that already are part of Colorado’s process.
Judicial Retention Elections
However you vote, you’ve probably noticed that even-year elections in Colorado have a very long ballot. Along with the list of candidates for U.S.-and Colorado-elected offices, the various initiatives, and proposed constitutional amendments there usually is a list of “Judicial Offices.” Under Article VI, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution, Colorado holds judicial retention elections where a yes or no vote determines whether a state judge continues for another term. Colorado Supreme Court Justices have the longest term of 10 years, with Colorado Court of Appeals Judges at eight years, and district and county Judges serving six and four years, respectively.
The implementation of retention elections was a shift from partisan candidate elections for judges in Colorado which existed from statehood until a 1966 ballot initiative that was led by the Colorado Bar Association and other organizations came into force. Citizen accountability through retention elections was paired with a merit selection system of nominating commissions to recommend qualified candidates to the governor for appointments. Because judges do not run against an opponent, the statutorily created Judicial Performance Commission evaluates judges and provides recommendations of “retain,” “do not retain,” or “no opinion” to voters.
Voter engagement in these judicial retention elections is not as high as contested candidate elections. For example, Colorado Secretary of State data shows that only 70.85% of all registered voters voted in the Colorado Supreme Court judicial officers on the 2012 statewide ballot. Within Denver, only 63.48% of voters participated in the retention questions for Denver District Court and County Court judges that year. It is unclear whether this drop-off in participation is due simply to voter fatigue during a long ballot, or lack of information on judges seeking retention. The 2012 Judicial Performance Commission recommended “retain” for 88 of the 90 judges on the ballot statewide that year (all 90 were retained after the election).
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Colorado is one of 38 states that hold some type of elections for state judges, though many other states still use partisan or nonpartisan candidate-opponent style elections. The Brennan Center’s analysis of the 2012 elections showed an increase in political campaign spending across the nation with political parties and special interest groups producing television ads and other campaign messaging for or against certain state judges. In Colorado, the Colorado Court of Appeals has held that organizations soliciting and spending money to support or oppose judges in retention elections must register and operate as a political committee under state campaign finance law. In general, the level of political spending and campaigning is much lower in states that have retention elections like Colorado than states with competitive partisan elections. However, that trend could change if campaign finance law continues to accommodate large amounts of political spending with various levels of disclosure.
Election Day is perhaps the one day all citizens are truly equal and when our voice counts equally in our democracy regardless of race, creed, gender, socio-economic status, or political philosophy.
Colorado citizens seem to value that right, but there is room to improve our voter turnout. Colorado’s system allows future generations to get involved in the democratic process and develop into lifelong active citizens by permitting high school students ages 16 and older to serve as student election judges at voting centers and to “pre-register” to vote (which automatically activates on their 18th birthday). It is hoped that Colorado will continue on this positive trend toward citizen involvement.
What is Law Day?
Law Day is a national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law. Law Day underscores how law and the legal process contribute to the freedoms that all Americans share. Law Day also provides an opportunity to recognize the role of courts in this democracy and the importance of jury service to maintaining the integrity of the courts. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day as a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law. In 1961, Congress, by joint resolution, designated May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day.
For more information on Law Day visit lawday.org.
By Peg Perl, Staff Counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan nonprofit government watchdog organization. Before moving to Colorado, she practiced for over a decade in Washington D.C., including public service positions with the U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee and the Federal Election Commission.