Every Vote Counts

Mail-ballot elections force candidates to change their campaign strategies.

For Greg Kolomitz, election "day" this year felt like it lasted forever. In actuality, it was three weeks long. But the 21-day stretch between when the polls opened in Denver's first all-mail-ballot election and when they closed November 6 meant that politicians and political strategists such as Kolomitz had to alter their battle plans.

"Tactically, you are forced to do all the things that people have said they don't like about elections," says Kolomitz, a partner with CRL Associates. "People say campaigns last too long. Well, with a mail-ballot election, the period you have to communicate with voters lasts much longer.

"They also say that elections cost too much money," he continues, noting that mail-ballot elections end up being even more expensive. CRL, which ran the city's effort to pass a bond initiative for a new, $325 million jail in the historic Baker neighborhood, went over budget on television advertising because Denver voters took their time returning their ballots, and the consulting firm wanted to keep up the pro-jail pressure until the end.

However, campaigners also had a newly expanded tool available: the ability to see who hadn't yet voted at any point during the three-week election period. This allowed them to direct their campaigning energy toward specific potential supporters. While this is not entirely new -- in order to make last-minute phone calls, politicians have always been allowed to check the polling place sign-in sheets on election days -- the length of the mail-ballot cycle afforded savvy pols much more time to maneuver. For $30 a pop, detailed information was available, down to the individual precinct, from the Denver Election Commission.

And so on November 1, CRL bought a list of everyone who'd already returned their ballots; on November 2, the company purchased a summary of everyone who hadn't yet returned ballots in six specific precincts. "There were some city council members who indicated that they wanted to make phone calls in their districts," Kolomitz says. "We used that information so we could call the people who hadn't returned their ballots yet."

The opposition did the same thing. On four occasions -- October 26 and 31, and November 2 and 5 -- Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega, representing Citizens for a Better Denver, which opposed the jail, asked the Denver Election Commission for the manifests of who had already voted and who hadn't.

"I think every campaign does this," says Ortega, whose district includes Baker. "It's the same thing as when you have people who take out absentee ballots, whereby any campaign will get the list of people who have already voted so that you are not bothering those people again. We used the information for door-to-door walking and for phoning. It allowed us the ability to have volunteers out there with updated information.

"Clearly, the mail-ballot election made it harder to put a strategy together," she acknowledges. "Everything wasn't geared up just for election day like it normally is, and we were working the voters much earlier on."

Whether that information helped is anyone's guess. Ortega believes the initiative was defeated because she had the issues on her side; Kolomitz says his campaign problems may have been due to the fact that he relied on voting patterns that have developed in other counties where CRL had been involved in previous mail-ballot campaigns.

"Traditionally, 35 to 40 percent of the voters return their ballots in the first few days, then there's a lull of a few weeks where about 20 percent come back, and then it picks back up again in the last two or three days with the remaining 30 to 40 percent," he explains. "What happened in Denver was we never got that initial peak. The vast majority of the ballots came in the last five to seven days. We had planned and budgeted our mail and television to hit those traditional peaks. So when the first peak didn't happen, we were forced to extend our television advertising for a period of time, which was a financial hit."

Les Woodward, who won re-election to his second term as the at-large member of the Denver School Board, also had to spend more money because of the three-week-long election process. "Perhaps it was unique to this election, but we found ourselves in the position of not being able to guess at all who would be the people most likely to vote," he says. "And as a result, this election cost twice as much for me as it did two years ago, when we targeted our mailings to the people who were most likely to vote." Woodward says he spent $40,000 (out of $50,000 total) sending information to all 217,792 people who received election packets from the Denver Election Commission.

But he was also able to save a little money by buying the rosters -- on October 25 and 29 and on November 2 -- of those who had already voted and pinpointing only those people who hadn't yet made up their minds. "We did do a late mailing that was fairly limited in scope, in which we excluded the names of persons who had already voted," Woodward says, adding that the new appeal was sent "to the districts where we anticipated that I would likely have stronger support. We also did a calling, trying to target people who hadn't voted."

Kolomitz, Ortega and Woodward weren't the only politicos to request lists, however. Kevin Patterson, who beat out several other candidates to become the new school-board representative in District 4, bought a compilation on November 5 of everyone who had returned ballots in three specific precincts; John Smith, one of Patterson's opponents, asked on October 25 and November 2 for the names of people who had returned ballots in District 4; city councilwoman Happy Haynes and neighborhood activist Ari Taylor, representing the community group Northeast Denver Get Out the Vote, wanted to know on November 2 who hadn't returned ballots in council districts 8 and 11, and who had returned ballots throughout the rest of the city.

"November 2 was a wild day," says Bill Brennan, file maintenance supervisor for the Denver Election Commission. "It was the final Friday of the election, and I was running reports the entire day."

Northeast Denver Get Out the Vote used the information to remind people that "they still had a chance to make their voices count," Haynes says. "When we pulled the reports, we were astounded at how many people hadn't voted yet. It was discouraging and shocking." The community group was also a strong backer of the Denver Children's Initiative, a ballot measure that eventually failed. "The mail-ballot election was so extraordinary. Every campaign was in total disarray as to how to target the message and where, and it was clear that early messages were not well targeted."

Mail ballots won't be a concern in the next election, as state law permits them only in off-year elections involving school-board candidates, but Kolomitz would like to see post-office politics eliminated entirely.

"I hate mail-ballot elections," he says. "I have a number of reasons why. From a voter-integrity perspective, I think they are bad, because how do you know when you mail out 200,000 ballots that I didn't vote [on behalf of] my wife, my son, my brother-in-law? Also, they are paper ballots, which are fundamentally flawed -- look at Florida. And secrecy is in question with mail ballots. Whoever opens the envelopes knows that person's name and how that person voted. Mail ballots disenfranchise voters as well. And by that I mean that in Denver, you only received a ballot in this election if you voted in last year's election. If you are registered, you could call to ask for one, but how many will do that?"

Although the Denver Election Commission made the decision to hold this year's mail-ballot election, Ortega believes the city council should have more of a say two years from now. If that happens, she says some things may change, adding, "I don't know if the city will use this process again."

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