The growing coronavirus pandemic has almost overnight upended nearly every aspect of daily life, and politicking is no exception.
As restrictions on gatherings and social distancing recommendations have taken hold, candidates and political parties have had to change the way they’re doing business, bringing an end to the kind of traditional campaigning that, in retrospect, seems almost designed to spread a contagion.
Whether it’s no longer pressing the flesh, working the rope line or adhering to that time-honored aphorism to always hold your rally in a room that’s slightly too small for your crowd — count on electioneering in the COVID-19 era to move beyond methods that seemed set in stone just weeks ago.
Another staple of campaigning appears to have been jolted by recent developments: going door to door, whether it’s talking with voters, dropping off leaflets or gathering signatures on a petition.
One of the Democrats running for the chance to challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, psychologist and dedicated climate activist Diana Bray, came up short March 17 when it came time to turn in nominating petitions to get on the June primary ballot.
Bray delivered petitions to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office the day before they were due, but she acknowledged that she didn’t gather enough signatures — in her race, that’d be 1,500 per congressional district for a total of 10,500 — after calling a halt to petition circulation roughly two weeks before the deadline as concerns about spreading the coronavirus grew.
She wasn’t alone. Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Ferrigno Warren submitted 9,000 signatures, and at the same time filed a petition in Denver District Court asking a judge to either give candidates another week to collect signatures once the emergency is lifted or put her on the ballot anyway, arguing she “substantially complied” with the requirement in the face of an unprecedented pandemic.
Other candidates who were gathering signatures said their efforts were stymied by the rapidly changing responses to the virus, as people became reluctant to answer their doors and even less enthusiastic about taking a pen and clipboard from a stranger.
Before the deadline, Bray called on Gov. Jared Polis to issue an executive order stopping all petition-gathering while reducing the number of required signatures by 30%, but she said that went nowhere.
Since striking out on that front, Bray has been calling on the Democratic Party and election officials to try something even more unorthodox — put all the candidates on the ballot and change the June 30 primary to ranked choice voting. She’s even circulated a petition — online, rather than in-person — to gauge support for her proposal and said she’s been encouraged by how popular it is.
“I’m going to put all my energy into seeing if there is a pathway,” said Bray, who admitted her suggestion is “ambitious.”
“Then I can say I’ve tried my best.”
Currently, Colorado conducts most elections using the plurality system of voting, which awards victory to the candidate who gets the most votes in a single round of balloting. Other methods include majority voting, which requires a run-off election if no one gets a majority at first — many municipalities use this system — and more exotic methods, such as ranked choice voting and approval voting.
Ranked choice voting asks voters to rank their preferences among multiple candidates rather than picking their favorite. If no one gets a majority in the first tabulation, the candidate who finished last is removed from the count, and voters who picked that candidate as their first choice instead cast their votes for their second choice — and so on and so on, until a candidate achieves a majority.
Colorado is one of a few states that allows municipalities to use the method. Telluride uses ranked choice voting, and Aspen used to but has abandoned it.
Approval voting lets voters select all the candidates they support in a given race, and then the candidate with the most votes wins, yielding a result supporters say better reflects the electorate’s intentions.
Last year, the tiny Approval Voting Party became Colorado’s fifth official minor political party after gaining its 1,000th registered voter.
The coronavirus pandemic has led other states to postpone primaries and increased support for liberal use of mail-in ballots, like Colorado has pioneered. So why not try something like Bray is suggesting?
Short answer, from other campaigns and election officials: sounds great, but it isn’t happening this year.
Secretary of State Jena Griswold convened a meeting last month to discuss the “legal, technological and practical issues” of implementing ranked-choice and approval voting, and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is sponsoring legislation that would help states pay for a move to ranked choice voting, with an eye toward reducing the overly partisan atmosphere.
While there's interest in considering the methods, there simply isn't enough time to adopt either before the June primary, election officials said.
"I think we all appreciate her confidence," Steve Hurlbert, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, said in an email, referring to Bray, "but implementing ranked-choice voting for the June 30 primary is logistically not possible for (a variety of) reasons. If we were to implement ranked-choice voting for primaries, it most likely would be for 2024 at the earliest."
George Stern, Jefferson County's clerk and recorder, said he's excited the state is looking at other methods of tabulating votes but added that it probably isn't possible to put in place until the 2021 off-year elections, at the earliest.
"I applaud the secretary of state for bringing together the stakeholder group earlier this year to begin discussing alternative voting methods," he said. "It’s important we start thinking about it and see if this is an area where we can continue to be a model for the rest of the nation."
But, citing "legal, administrative and educational concerns for changing the way we conduct elections," he said "it’s unreasonable to solve all three by the June election."
While the votes won't be counted until June 30, ballots have to go in the mail to military and overseas voters by May 16, and county clerks have just four weeks to finalize instructions to voters.
"The idea that we could change the way we do our processes and figure out a way to educate voters on that is unreasonable," he said.
Still, Stern said he sympathizes with candidates who are trying to access the ballot "given the uncertainty of the current climate and how much has changed with the way we are interacting with the public."
"We should keep having those conversations, but we’ve got a phenomenal voting system in Colorado," he said. "We shouldn't be rushing into any decision that could impact how we hold elections."