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S2E6 - Colorado's Election System with Judd Choate

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with Judd Choate, the Director of the Division of Elections for the Colorado Department of State about the voter-centric election system in the state – a nearly all vote-by-mail model.

In 2013, Colorado passed “The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013,” which requires ballots to be mailed to every registered voter for most elections.

You can get more perspective on the Colorado election systems by listening to our previous episode, “#11 Voting from Home with Amber McReynolds.” In that episode, Amber McReynolds, the then CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, spoke about voting from home and the importance of voter-centric policies.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Eric Fey: All right, well, we're here today with Judd Choate from the state of Colorado. He is the director of elections in the Secretary of State's office in Colorado. We've talked in previous episodes with folks from Colorado. From the County Clerk's Association and with county clerks. But this is the first time we're talking to somebody at the state level. I think it will be particularly interesting because in election administration, there is this Colorado model, and it is expanded across some states. And so we definitely want to delve into that. But the first thing we always ask our guest, Judd, is how they got involved in election administration in the first place. So why don't we start there?

Judd Choate: Well, thanks first for inviting me, I appreciate it. I listened faithfully to your podcast, so it's exciting to be on. I told my wife and kids, so Alright, so the answer to your question is the same that I'm sure you receive from pretty much everybody else. And that is by accident. I was a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska. I taught campaigns and elections, and government. So, I taught presidency and Congress. My wife got a job at Colorado State University, directing Public Policy Institute. We were moving to Colorado, I could have done a spousal hire and stayed a professor, but I was kind of bored of it, and decided to go back to law school. I commuted from Fort Collins to Boulder and went to law school for three years. After that, clerked with a Supreme Court justice. And during that time, I had the opportunity to work on several elections law cases. Just happened to be a really active cycle for initiatives. Then went to work for a law firm that did government law. A couple years after that the state election position opened, and I applied for it and was hired.

Eric Fey: Well, the first question, I'm really curious about learning your background. I've met a fair number of folks who have been lawyers that have gone into election administration, we just interviewed Stephen Richer from Maricopa County, he's an attorney, for instance. I don't know that there have been many people from the academic field. I mean, I'm sure there are a few. But that being said, you’ve been in academics, you've been in the legal field, you've litigated some of these things. I'm sure some lawyers and academics would take issue with what I'm about to say, but moving from the theoretical to the, let's say, the real world of where the rubber meets the road in elections. What was that transition like?

Judd Choate: It was bumpy. The truth of the matter is that people who work in elections, be they lawyers, or even politicians who get elected. They think they know a lot about elections. I thought I knew a lot about elections. Then I took the job directing the department that runs elections, and realized, you know, instantly, that I didn't know anything about elections. I spent the first you know, six to nine months, just trying to get the lingo right, trying to understand what the acronyms were. Trying to follow conversations, because it was a level of detail that as an attorney, I never had to focus on. And certainly, as an academic, you're talking about large institutions. So, you're talking about the ship, you're not talking about individual compartments in the ship. I just really didn't have any sense about how detailed and complicated it was until I took the job.

Brianna Lennon: Jumping to talking about Colorado, specifically, our previous conversation, some have talked about 2013 in Colorado, and when modernization and vote by mail went into effect. You were around for that too. I wondered if you could speak to maybe a little bit to what the experience on your end was like while that process happened in 2013 in Colorado. Also, if you see similarities or a diversion from that, as we're looking at law changes and different reforms now.

Judd Choate: The situation in 2013 was that the Secretary of State for Colorado was Scott Gessler. He was a Republican Secretary of State, he opposed pretty much everything into the in 1303, which was the bill that sort of revolutionized Colorado elections. He was okay with well by mail. But every other element of that bill he opposed. Practically speaking, people like Amber McReynolds, Pam Anderson, Matt Crane, some others, were working behind the scenes, bringing that bill to life. I think they kind of lost Matt along the way, but there were people that were actively engaged in the creation of that bill, working with legislators. Who then chose not to work with us. Because at the state level, we were working for Scott Gessler and Scott opposed much of the bill. So almost all the bill happened in secret and happened without our input. We only learned about it officially, I mean, there were rumblings, but we only officially heard about it on April 1, 2013. Which I thought was kind of ironic, because the joke was on us. The problem with the bill, from our perspective, was that it became effective upon signature. It had what we call a safety clause. The governor signed it, around June 1, we had a couple of recall elections that happened in July. All of the elements of that bill, we had to actually incorporate and do live in like a month, month and a half. And much of it required technological upgrade. We had to write some code, we had to sort of jerry rig our system and policies to make it work. My experience of 1303 was it was really hard. We didn't enjoy it at all. At the at the same time, I will say that almost across the board, everybody in the office, perhaps except for the Secretary, thought that the policies were good ones. Pretty much everyone who worked for me and everyone that I knew that was pretty engaged in elections at the administration level, except for the Secretary believed that same day registration was a very reasonable policy that could be done technologically, and safely and securely. Vote by mail could be done safely and securely. Doing vote centers across the state can be done safely and securely. We also did pre-registration at that time of 16 and 17-year-olds in 1303. The other big part of 1303, which people don't know about, or talk about as much was using NCOA, national change of address information to automatically update voter registration. We receive the NCOA information, and just updated the records administratively. Then, sent a notice to the voter saying, when you notified the United States Postal Service that you were moving a couple weeks ago or a month ago or six weeks ago, we use that information to automatically update your voter registration. Are you okay with that? And we, occasionally we'll hear from a voter that says no, that's not what I wanted. But the vast majority of people were perfectly fine with that and thought it was a great use of government resources. So that was a really big part of 1303. But most of what I just described required pretty extraordinary technological upgrades and some code that had to be rewritten for our statewide voter registration system. We just weren't ready to do that. We couldn't do it with a snap of a finger. We had to do months and months, even over a year worth of development to accomplish a lot of that. That's probably a somewhat different perspective than you might have heard from others who have talked about it.

Eric Fey: Yeah, no, but I think it's important to hear that perspective and understand it for sure. Something I've been curious about, in general, about Colorado for a while is just how prolific Colorado has been in, for want of a better term, election administration innovation. I've been in my director role since January of 2015. When I started going to conferences, watching webinars, reading white papers, things like that, you can't help but bump into Colorado people everywhere. You're very prolific Judd. The people you mentioned in your previous comments are everywhere. Colorado has a very robust County Clerk's Association. A lot of very progressive, and when I say progressive, I mean with a lowercase p. Election administrators that try new things. They're innovative. You mentioned the legislation that kind of instituted the so-called Colorado model, even though the Secretary of State at the time was against it because of ideological or partisan differences. There are other states with Democratic capitals, Democratic legislatures that aren't implementing this kind of stuff. All that to say, or ask, what is it about Colorado that all this stuff happens in election administration at the state and local level?

Judd Choate: Good question. I'm not exactly sure what's in the water, but there clearly is something. I think a couple of things. First, the Clerks Association, that you mentioned, is really active. They're very strong and persuasive among legislators. Sometimes that's really annoying, when you're the Secretary of State's office, and you want to try to just get something done, and you have to fight with the clerks. For the most part, it's a really good thing, because it often means we're partnering with them on policies. And where we may have a perspective, they may hold a slightly different, but also complementary perspective. We can work together on something. Between the two of us were much more powerful. So that's one thing. The power and persuasion of the clerk's and people in elections administration is really important. We also seem to have a number of state legislators who are very engaged on the topic of elections administration. They're pretty sophisticated. In fact, our Senate Majority Leader right now used to be the executive director of a major election nonprofit in Colorado. When you have people engaged at that level, and frankly, pretty sophisticated about those kinds of issues, you tend to get pretty sophisticated legislation. People that want to push the envelope. Those are a couple of things. I think the secretaries make a pretty big difference too. Secretary Gessler is sort of a counterexample because he was opposed to many of these things. But Secretary Williams, who was the secretary who followed, Scott Gessler, was pretty engaged on a number of these more progressive kinds of issues. I would note that Wayne Williams is a Republican, lifelong Republican, solidly Republican. If you met him and talk to him, you would walk away going, he is a Republican. But he was very enthusiastic about many of the things which sort of make up the Colorado model. Obviously, Secretary Griswold, who is a Democrat, has pushed in a number of other new ways to sort of expand our model. Good secretaries, I think have had a big role. I would note that the one other thing that will come up when you're sort of talking among elections administrators, is we have money. That really helps us push forward on a lot of these policies. The way that our system works in Colorado is that business and licensing fees, do not go back to the legislature to then be reauthorized back to us. We keep them. All we have to do is ask the legislature for authorization to spend the money. Well, the legislature is much more apt to give us authority to spend money that they themselves give to us. We go to them and we say, we want to do something new, like we want to do ballot tracking this year. We want to enroll everybody who has an active email address and get 50% of our population so that they can track their ballots. From the moment they're mailed to the moment they're counted. And the legislature says, Well, how much is that? And we tell them, and they go, well, are you asking for money? And we say, no, we just want to spend our own money. They go, yeah, okay, whatever, and tell us to go away. That means we can do a lot of that kind of cool stuff because we just have access to funds that many, many other offices, perhaps even all of them just don't have.

Brianna Lennon: You mentioned that the Clerks Association is pretty strong in Colorado as well. What kind of impact? Because I'm sure you know, you've talked to other state election directors that have very different relationships with their Clerks Associations or with their locals in general. How would you describe how your office works with clerks in Colorado?

Judd Choate: work very closely with clerks. I'll give you a couple of examples. When we created our voter registration database, so it was from a vendor, the Sabre system that Iowa has, and Oregon has, and Missouri has. When we did that, in 2006 through 2008, we had a whole team of people that were rolling that out. Developing the system, writing the code. Then, training and actually implementing. We retain some of those people at the end of that process and created what we call the Score Help Desk. We have a group of people, none of whom, well, one of whom is remains from that original group. We've continued to employ people in the position of helping counties to do the work of working in that voter registration system. Also just understanding what Colorado election law is, and how to run an election. I think that that relationship means that the counties, either the County Clerks or the people that work for the County Clerks rely on us. We have that relationship. We know who they are, we know their names. We know their families, we know their kids. That's a big deal. It means that we're all sort of in this fight together. We also have lawyers and county support team on staff who are talking to counties all the time. Our relationship is symbiotic. I mean, we are we are not two lanes that very rarely interact. We are interacting every single day. The other thing is that our office will often travel around the counties. In fact, Thursday and Friday of last week, I was in the counties talking to county officials. That's not atypical, we do that all the time. In the week prior to our primary election, which will be next month, I'll travel around to a region of the state and see half a dozen clerks or more. Before a general election, so an even year November election, we will go to every county in the state in a couple of weeks before the election and try to hopefully visit every single polling place in the week or 10 days prior to that election. This is something we just take very seriously. We take very seriously our relationship with the counties. I feel like and I hope that this is the way that they would see it. I feel like they're stronger because of that, too. They know more of what they need to do, they know where to get the right answer. They know the resources that are available to them. They don't rely so heavily on their vendors. Instead we conduit that information to them and so they have kind of another government person that they can speak to and ask questions. Where maybe in other jurisdictions they would have gone straight to a vendor. So, all of that I think helps to make us have a more holistic election system in Colorado. Can I add one more thing to that question? There's also a provision that our state law that during an election where there's a state initiative on the ballot, we will we pay the counties per number of active voters they have. It's to the county's benefit to keep their voter registration data up to date, because the number of active voters will dictate how much money they get out of an election. And that helps to support the work that they do. A large county gets 80 cents per active voter. Smaller county gets 90 cents per active voter. That turns out is real money when you sort of add all those numbers together, and you use that money productively to help with your election’s administration. The state also helps financially, local jurisdictions to carry out their election’s administration.

Brianna Lennon: And you can say you don't want to answer this question. But I'm curious because that is a very collaborative picture of how elections operate. I'm sure you have you've commiserated with other state election directors before. What advice do you give them if they are in situations where that is not the case?

Judd Choate: Well, we didn't get there overnight. I think it's something that has grown up from a a specific and laid out goal. We want to have good relationships with our counties. We want to have the kind of elections administration which requires and has benefited from our collaboration. We did that over time, we did that through relationship building. We did it by getting in the car and going places because nothing will endear you to a county election official, more than showing up at their office and spending a couple hours with them. Especially if that office is a long way away. In Colorado, there are elections offices that are seven and a half hours away from my office. When I am in Montezuma county or Rio Blanco County or some other corner of the state, it means a lot to them. They understand that I had to go a long way and that I'm there to hear their story here about the work that they do. Hear about the ways in which state policies don't quite work for them. And gosh, I wish it was this way. Or that form is completely indecipherable. You guys need to go back to the drawing board. That's the kind of stuff I come back with, I come back with a list. People in the office hate it when I go out on trips, because I come back with five things for everybody to do. I think that benefits us. It makes us work hard, but it benefits us in the big picture with our relationship with the counties. If I was giving advice to other state election officials, I would say become your county elections officials’ best friends. Find out more about them, find out more about their lives, their relationships, the way that they do their work, and because of that, you'll develop a better relationship. The other things by the way, I think would help too. If they had a strong association, if they had yearly meetings, or even bi-yearly meetings, or if they had money that was coming from the state to help support election administration. All those things would help. The first thing that you can do that, you have control over, is developing those relationships. Picking up the phone or getting in a car and developing those relationships is really important.

Lennon: You've been listening to "High Turnout, Wide Margins," a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey.

A big thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our managing editor is Rebecca Smith. Our managing producer is Aaron Hay. And our associate producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been "High Turnout, Wide Margins." Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.