Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold on Friday called for regulations or legislation to require the Postal Service to notify election officials of delays delivering mail ballots after learning that 828 ballots didn't land in Denver-area mailboxes until the afternoon of Tuesday's election — including more than 650 bound for voters in Aurora, where ballot counting continues in a mayoral race that remains too close to call.
Griswold said election officials could have asked a judge to extend polling hours and taken other steps to give voters the chance to cast ballots if they had known the batch of replacement ballots wasn't delivered until the last minute.
But a spokesman for the Postal Service fired back, calling Griswold's criticism "very disappointing" and "not accurate to what the facts are."
It's the latest snag involving ballots in Aurora's municipal election, where Republican Mike Coffman inched ahead Friday to a 281-vote lead over Democrat Omar Montgomery in the nonpartisan race for mayor as county clerks tabulated more ballots Friday, including 800 that were held until officials could determine the voters in Adams County hadn't voted twice after duplicate ballots were mailed to correct a typo.
Of the 828 delayed ballots issued to voters in Denver and Arapahoe County, 664 belonged to Aurora residents. Secretary of state officials said just 141 of the Aurora voters cast ballots — 45 in person at vote centers and 96 who dropped their ballot off before Tuesday's 7 p.m. deadline. That's a turnout rate that's only half the citywide turnout rate in Aurora, the officials said.
Griswold said she didn't think the late deliveries will ultimately have an impact on the Aurora mayoral election but added, "You have to make various assumptions to get there."
The replacement ballots were issued to voters who didn't receive their mail ballots weeks ago, voters who changed their registration after a recent move or those who requested replacements after damaging their ballot.
"The bottom line is the Post Office understood the they had a problem on Election Day — they called all their carriers to come back, 'Emergency! Pick up these ballots to send them out!' — but they failed to notify us. And there are things that we could have done," Griswold said at a news conference.
"This underlines the need for continued communication and, frankly, regulation and possibly legislation to ensure that we know what's happening with ballots if the Post Office discovers a problem, whether they made the problem or not," she said.
Griswold said she was alerted to the problem Friday morning by Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Stephany Rose Spaulding and Diana Bray after mail carriers told them about it Thursday night at a union meeting.
“We were honestly expecting a different response rather than to be criticized," David Rupert, a regional spokesman for the USPS, told Colorado Politics. "We thought that this was a good thing, to expedite that. There was no delay in the mail; we met our standards, according to the postage.”
Rupert said the Denver and Arapahoe clerks "chose to send those ballots at the cheapest postage rate that we have," and the Post Office processed the ballots "within the proper timeframe. They weren’t lost. They weren't mislaid. They weren't late. They weren't delayed. We processed the mail according to the postage that they paid.”
He added: “There is no requirement for us to call anybody because it’s a standard. We get mail right up through Election Day. And you know what our job is? To deliver it. And guess what? We delivered it."
Griswold said other batches of replacement ballots — mailed at the same rate — were delivered by the same vendor to the same central mail facility on the Friday before the election and made it to voters within a day or two, instead of the four days it took for the 828 ballots.
She said her staff determined that the late ballots at some point lost a tag "that tells the Postal Service, 'Hey, this is a ballot'" that lets workers know to expedite the mail, so sat there until someone noticed them and then scrambled to deliver them by 3 p.m. on Tuesday.
"If the Post Office is unable to follow their own processes to deliver mail ballots on time, if they realize that there is a problem enough to call all the mail deliverers back in to grab the ballots to rush them out, I think they could notify us," Griswold said. "Indeed, this lack of notification has detrimental results. We could have asked a judge to expand polling hours. We can't do that now."
She added: "I hope that we can work with the Postal Service. I want us to have good relations."
Coffman and Montgomery's campaign managers declined to comment Friday on the late-arriving ballots, but both said they're pressing ahead to encourage voters to "cure" more than 600 ballots that haven't been counted because of signature problems.
After officials in Arapahoe County tallied thousands of ballots that weren't returned until Election Day on Thursday, Montgomery had nearly erased Coffman's election night lead, pulling within 273 votes of the former congressman in the five-way race to helm the city of 375,000.
The county clerks in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties — the jurisdictions that include parts of Aurora, Colorado's third-largest city — have finished counting all the ballots that arrived by Election Day, spokespeople said. They're awaiting ballots mailed by military and overseas voters, which must arrive by midnight Wednesday to be counted.
— Colorado Politics reporter Alayna Alvarez contributed