Snail mail? Colorado media project finds timely postal delivery; local officials promise reliable mail election

This story was updated with information about in-person voting in Arapahoe County. 

AURORA  | As the nation careens toward an already fraught Election Day, local election officials say citizens should vote and trust the results of shored-up election systems. 

Clerks in Arapahoe and Adams counties say they’ve addressed failures plaguing the 2019 cycle and buttressed their processes for November, when voters in Aurora and across the U.S. will cast votes for President, Congressional lawmakers and a slew of state, county and local candidates. 

The election already has the potential to devolve into uncertainty. President Donald Trump again refused last week to say he’ll honor election results, the Associated Press reported. 

“We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said at a news conference, referring to mail-in ballots. 

All voters in Colorado receive their ballot in the mail. 

While Trump has cast doubt on mail-in voting, Colorado officials say the process is well-oiled, easy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, has repeatedly criticized Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting. She said on Twitter Thursday Colorado’s voting system is the best in the nation. 

 In Arapahoe County, Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez oversees the election. A Democrat, Lopez said Arapahoe County voters will have more than 30 ballot drop-off locations to choose from. A citizen will simply have to open their mailbox, fill out their ballot and drop it off before 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. Voters can begin dropping off their ballots on Oct. 9.

Mailed-in ballots have to be received before 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 to be counted by election staffers. Lopez asked that voters place their ballots in the mail before Oct. 26 to give United States Postal Service carriers ample time. 

In person voting begins on Oct. 19.

“I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. But, Colorado is just a model for across the country. We’ve made it so easy,” Lopez said of the process.

Dorothy Gotlieb, chairperson of the Arapahoe County Republican Party, has levied heavy criticism at Lopez in the past. 

But she said the party is no longer calling for Lopez’s resignation after she assuaged some of their concerns about election security and last election cycle. 

“Of course, I take a wait and see attitude. But at this time, I am satisfied with the response of the Clerk and Recorder to our concerns,” Gotlieb said. “I’m not saying I’m totally confident in the whole election process, but I think Colorado has it over many other states.” 

In Aurora, the 2019 election cycle suffered from many mistakes.

In a razor-thin mayor’s race between Mike Coffman and Omar Montgomery, the USPS failed to deliver about 800 ballots mostly pertaining to that contest. Those ballots sat for days, uncounted.

The Arapahoe County Clerk’s office also sent about 250 incorrect ballots to residents in Aurora’s Ward V. And in Adams County, clerk staff sent about 17,000 incorrect ballots instructing voters to select only one candidate for the at-large city council race, not two. The county office later mailed out replacement ballots.

The debacles spurred no shortage of finger-pointing between the Aurora city clerk, county clerks, Griswold and the Postal Service. 

Lopez said communication and verification are hallmarks of their approach to the election this year. She said she worked with the Aurora clerk to correct the discrepancy in Ward V — an issue dating back to 2007, she said — and she hired an expert in geographic information systems to further shore up a process confirming the correct ballot is sent to the correct address. 

And, she says the clerk’s office enjoys a “fabulous” relationship with the Post Office. She said last year’s issue with the mayoral race ballots stemmed from “human error.”

In Adams County, Election Office staff “streamlined” their procedures. Staff also implemented more review and verification measures “to ensure accuracy in our ballots,” spokesperson Christa Bruning said in an email. 

“We’ve had two elections under these new processes with great success,” she said. 

Adams County also announced Thursday it will keep an early voting center open the Sunday before election day. That ballot box is located at 2390 Havana St. Voting centers typically aren’t open on Sundays. 

To ensure there’s no hitches, Lopez encouraged Aurorans to vote early and physically drop off their ballots. 

“Go vote,” she said. “Please.” 

— Grant Stringer, Sentinel Colorado Staff Writer

When will it get there?

Reports of slower mail delivery times nationally and across Colorado since mid-summer are causing concern as more voters than ever plan to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election, to avoid coronavirus exposure.

But an unscientific experiment by the Colorado News Collaborative over the past month found little to be concerned about in the Centennial State.

Of 120 letters or padded envelopes sent from 24 cities and towns to 26 cities and towns, most arrived at their destination within two to four days. More than half arrived within two days, and another 31% arrived within three days.

The Postal Service acknowledged nationwide delivery slowdowns in a report to Congress late last month. Those slowdowns came after new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a former trucking company owner and Republican megadonor, ordered limits on overtime for postal workers and removal of some mail-sorting machines.

The Postal Service “is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner,” a spokesman for the agency emailed. An Associated Press examination of delivery data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, however, indicated that no region of the country meets the target of more than 95% of first-class mail arriving within five days.

The USPS did better in the experiment conducted by Colorado newsrooms.

What we did

On the last day of August, 96 pieces of mail were sent out to 26 cities around the state, including to Yuma, Wiggins and Holyoke on the Eastern Plains; to Grand Junction, Eagle, Montrose and Steamboat Springs in the west; and to Salida, Pagosa Springs and Coaldale in the south of the state. Along the Front Range, Denver, Greeley, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Pueblo and Boulder also were included.

More than half the mailings originated in Denver, Lafayette and Lakewood. Another set of 24 mailings were sent back to Denver from cities and towns around the state between Sept. 2 and Sept. 8.

The average delivery time for the Aug. 31 mailings was about 2.7 days. The average delivery time for other mailing dates was 2.6 days, excluding Sunday and Labor Day. That’s within the Postal Service’s target of virtually all such mailings arriving within five days.

A padded envelope mailed from Meeker to Salida didn’t arrive, and a letter mailed to Salida was returned to the sender in Centennial as undeliverable, even though the address was correct and four other mailings to the same address arrived within three to four days.

A summer of discontent

Over the summer, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office decided to ask Coloradans on social media how they had been affected by U.S. Postal Service slowdowns, with the expectation it would receive maybe a few dozen stories. Instead, there were nearly 200.

A woman in Littleton named Haley did not receive her bipolar disorder medication, causing anxiety attacks. Zoe, an independent contractor in Denver, received payments from her clients two weeks late, leading to overdraft fees and a damaged credit score. A Telluride resident named Amanda who suffers from Lyme disease went three days without her treatment.

“The response we got was pretty substantial because we literally just made a few social media posts and then ended up getting all of these people telling their stories,” said Attorney General Phil Weiser.

“But I think we only got a fraction of the complaints that are out there.”

Weiser’s office cobbled four of the stories into a multi-state lawsuit filed in eastern Washington. Its goal was to force USPS to roll back reforms – the removal of sorting equipment, limitations on overtime – that slowed the distribution of mail in July and August. USPS had already pledged to delay its reforms until after the election, but Weiser wanted a binding court order.

And he got one. On Sept. 17, a judge issued a preliminary injunction forcing the USPS to end “implementation or enforcement of policy changes … that have slowed mail delivery” and to continue prioritizing all election mail, such as ballots, between now and November.

In the month between Aug. 18, when DeJoy announced he would suspend his reforms, and Sept. 17, when a judge required him to, mail delivery times rollercoastered, according to a massive study by a company called SnailWorks published in the New York Times. After improvements in late August, delivery times slowed in the first half of September. A spokesman for SnailWorks said in an email that Colorado was in line with the rest of the nation.

With ballots set to be mailed in two weeks, that’s worrisome for some election watchers.

How mail-in ballots work in Colorado

Colorado began all-mail elections in 2013, though several counties conducted elections by mail before then. Only 7% of voters cast ballots in person in 2016, and 4% did so in 2018.

While the ballots go out to voters via the Postal Service, only one-quarter of voters who vote by mail put a stamp on the envelope to return it. The other 75% return their ballots via dropboxes around the state.

And there have occasionally been problems.

Two years ago, a truck with 61,000 Adams County ballots went missing after it was turned away by the Postal Service for not having the proper paperwork. The ballots were delivered after the foul-up was discovered.

About 100 voters in Coaldale in western Fremont County did not receive ballots in the June 30 primary election. Mark Gully, who owns Outback Fibers in Coaldale, said he didn’t receive his ballot until after the primary was over.

He wasn’t a fan of all-mail elections in the first place.

“I would rather have everybody go and place their vote in a box in a balloting place,” Gully said. “To me this is an example of what can happen in mail ballots.”

Fremont County Clerk Justin Grantham said the Coaldale confusion was the result of ballots not being routed properly from Denver, and people using post office boxes to receive their ballots. If a person’s name isn’t specifically listed on the PO box, the ballot is returned to the clerk’s office.

“We didn’t have that problem in the presidential primary election before that; we didn’t have it in the coordinated election in 2019,” Grantham said. “We didn’t have that problem in Howard; we didn’t have that problem in Hillsdale, in Cotopaxi,” three other towns in the western part of the county.

Grantham noted Fremont is using a new ballot tracking system and said his office will be alert for similar problems preceding the Nov. 3 general election. A recent USPS report on mail ballot preparedness cited Colorado’s system of tracking mail ballots among its best practices.

Meanwhile, at the attorney general’s office, employees have stopped counting and collecting stories about USPS slowdowns and the problems those slowdowns have caused. Weiser, a Democrat, says he has been assuaged and comforted by the Sept. 17 injunction, although he will be keeping an eye on DeJoy and USPS in the weeks and months ahead.

“We’re going to remain vigilant,” he said, “and stay on top of this.”

— The story about the speed of mail is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 50 newsrooms across Colorado working together to better serve the public. Learn more at https://colabnews.co