Why is it taking so long to count votes in Colorado? Here’s why — and other ballot counting questions, answered

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Election judge Cyndi Clark makes notes about scanned ballots before sealing their box, on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, at Mesa County Elections headquarters in Grand Junction.

Vote counting in Colorado’s closest races will last at least through next Wednesday, Nov. 16.

That’s the last day voters who were contacted by their local supervisor of elections can fix, or “cure” any problem that has prevented their ballot from being counted. It’s also the day absentee ballots from those serving in the military outside of Colorado or any Coloradans living overseas are due.

Close races are a challenge for any state, but CPR’s reporting over the past two years has shown that some elements of Colorado’s self-proclaimed “gold standard” electoral system can contribute to delays in determining electoral outcomes. Here are some questions and answers that have popped up as the state, and nation, wait for results.

Why is it taking so long?

The same elements that are a convenient feature of Colorado’s elections system in the weeks before votes are counted can feel like an annoying bug once election day arrives. Being able to vote at your kitchen table means that verification of your identity, and eligibility to cast a ballot, take place after you submit your completed ballot, but before it is accepted for counting. If tens, or hundreds, of thousands of voters wait until Election Day to turn in their ballots, it is going to slow the count.

CPR’s Matt Bloom recently walked readers and listeners through the process, showing how it is both comprehensive and time-consuming.

But doesn’t every state have thousands, even millions, of votes that arrive on Election Day? Yet they still manage to count them all before the night is over.

Again, that’s because states without early voting, at-home voting, or widespread absentee voting verify voter identity and eligibility at the polling place before the ballot is cast on Election Day. Colorado does the same thing for in-person voters at Vote Centers, and those votes are typically quickly tabulated on election night. It’s the ballots that were filled out in homes and offices and were then turned in on Election Day that still need signature verification, and that takes time.

Okay, but do they really need more than a week to do this?

This is where the closeness of races comes into play. In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, for example, it appears every vote could be the deciding vote. Ballots from overseas, and military personnel who are “absent from Colorado”, get an extra eight days to arrive and be counted to account for slow delivery. The people who cast ballots that were rejected because of a suspected signature discrepancy or missing signature on the envelope also get a chance to prove they were the person who voted. Every election takes this long behind the scenes, it’s just that voters usually don’t care because the margins are so large the winner is apparent.

So, people who live overseas are still voting now?

No. They have to vote by 7 p.m. mountain time on Election Day, just like you. They just get an extended deadline for the ballot to be received.

And how does someone “cure” their missing or unmatching signature?

The state has made that pretty easy. If you receive a letter from your supervisor of elections, simply text COLORADO to 28683. You’ll need your voter ID number, which will be in the letter or other message you receive alerting you to a problem. Then sign via your phone, take a picture of your ID, and you will likely fix the problem.

Can people whose signature was rejected just get a new ballot and vote?

No. Votes had to be cast by 7 p.m. on election night, or the voter had to be in line when that time arrived. You are stuck with the choices you made then. But if a signature was missing or rejected, voters can still fix that so those choices are counted.

How many ballots still have to be counted?

That remains a little bit of an unknown. Election supervisors in some counties get so busy with opening envelopes, verifying signatures and running ballots through the machines that they don’t regularly update for the public the number of ballots received and left to process.

So we’re just waiting for the remaining ballots to be counted or signatures cured, along with military and overseas absentee ballots?

There is another category: Damaged or otherwise unreadable ballots. Those are reviewed by election judges and bi-partisan panels to determine whether the voter’s intent is apparent. In a particularly close race, like, say, the 2000 presidential election in Florida, these are the ballots that can lead to some of the biggest arguments. Counties can also be expected to hold back some ballots to mix with the overseas absentees and military ballots. That will preserve the anonymity of those overseas votes, but also means there will be more than just absentee and military ballots left to tabulate after the Wednesday deadline.

You dropped off your ballot. Here's what happens next.

When will the winners be declared?

Winners aren’t really declared, except by outside groups, most frequently the Associated Press. But, according to Colorado’s election calendar, all votes must be received, and all discrepancies must be cured by next Wednesday, Nov. 16. All vote counting must be completed by next Friday, Nov. 18.

Ok, so then we'll know the winners?

Probably. But county canvassing boards are not required to produce the official “abstract of votes cast” — the final word on the election — until Wednesday, Nov. 30.

Ok ... so then we'll know the winners?

Maybe not. Any races in which the margin of victory is smaller than one-half of one percent of the winner’s total vote will face an automatic recount of ballots. Those automatic recounts don’t have to be completed until Dec. 13. Any recounts requested, and paid for, by interested parties don’t have to be completed until Dec. 15. They could all be done sooner than that too.

And all of this assumes the courts don’t get involved at the request of someone losing an election?

That’s right. Not to borrow trouble, but any judicial action could have an unknown impact on timelines. So far, we know of no lawsuits that have been filed so far in this general election.