Updated Nov. 5 – Almost exactly a third of the 3.09 million ballots sent to Colorado voters this election had been returned as of Election Day morning.
The number of ballots returned indicates that more than 400,000 additional ballots will have to hit county clerks’ offices before 7 p.m. if turnout is to reach the 50 percent seen in 2011.
Denver, heavily Democratic and the county with the largest number of active voters, had reached a 26 percent return rate. Douglas, a key Republican-leaning county, was at 44 percent of ballots return, and other large GOP counties like El Paso, Weld and Mesa was above 30 percent. The only large Democratic-leaning counties with more than 30 percent of ballots returned were Boulder and Pueblo.
A low turnout, particularly in Democratic counties, could be worrisome for Amendment 66 backers, given the widely cited view that the campaign needs to draw voters who don’t normally vote in off-year elections in order to pass the $950 million state income tax increase.
Just over a quarter of ballots had been cast as of Monday morning.
Veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson said Monday the turnout “sounds about average” for an off-year election and that while A66 backers probably are “hoping for a high turnout, it’s not necessarily bad news for them either.”
Atkinson said, “All or most Democrats are probably yes votes” but that it’s “just about impossible to predict how Republicans will be voting,” adding that A66 likely will have some support from Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
“The big question is how big a chunk” that will be, Atkinson said. “My sense is that this is going to be close.”
Another experienced consultant, Lynea Hansen, thinks the Republican-Democratic gap will narrow by 7 p.m. Tuesday. “We have a tradition of Democrats voting on Election Day,” she said, even in an all-mail election.
She noted there was significant Democratic turnout on Election Day in 2011, which also was largely all-mail. “I definitely think Amendment 66 is going to come down to the wire,” and the result will depend on whether the pro-66 campaign gets its supporters to vote.
Consultant Eric Sondemann said the number of ballots returned “strikes me as a very modest turnout.” He agreed that more Democrats than Republicans vote on Election Day but that “There’s going to have to be a hell of a surge tomorrow” for Democrats to close the gap.
Backers of A66 made a last in-person push on Saturday as about 740 paid and volunteer canvassers went door-to-door in 11 communities around the state.
High-profile Democratic politicians turned at A66 rallies. “Every minute counts, every step counts and every door knocked counties,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told canvassers after they returned from working in Aurora.
Mayor Michael Hancock rallied volunteers in Denver, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia spoke to Fort Collins canvassers.
A panel of experts did a “pre-mortem” on A66 during a discussion sponsored by the Buechner Institute of Governance at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I do think it will be close,” said Norma Anderson, a former Republican legislative leader from Jefferson County. Anderson, who opposes A66, noted, “The one thing about the people in Colorado, they don’t like a raise in taxes.”
Andrew Freedman, A66 campaign manager, predicted the measure will pass and cautioned, “Don’t read too much” into early ballot returns. (About 23 percent of ballots had been returned as of Friday morning.)
“There’s a lot of turnout game to be played,” said Hansen, who also was on the panel. “Democrats don’t turn their ballots in until later in the game.”
Hansen also noted that turnout may be affected by other political controversies that have been in the news, including gun control, marijuana taxes and civil unions. “All of this frames the debate. Such distractions won’t necessarily change voters’ minds about A66, but “It’s changing who’s voting” and will affect turnout.
Panel members also were coaxed into “what if” speculation by moderator Paul Teske.
“If it fails you’re not going to pass another tax increase unless it’s a minor one,” predicted Anderson.
“If it doesn’t pass we have to make another stab at finding the right solution,” said Hansen, who personally supports A66.
Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said, “We can’t use 66 [losing] as an excuse to not do the things we know that we fundamentally need to be doing” in education reform. (The chamber has supported A66’s accompanying legislation, Senate Bill 13-213, but remained neutral on the amendment.)