Two Colorado State Senate Democrats were recalled Tuesday, driven in large part by gun rights supporters angry over new ammunition limits past in March. With unusually low turnout — and a razor-thin final margin in one of the districts — the irregular rules used for the recall elections may have made the difference in one or both races.
More than 71 percent of registered Colorado voters participated in the November 2012 election — the third highest turnout rate in the nation. Much of that owed to Colorado’s vote-by-mail option, which has been available for the past several elections. Indeed, as much as 70 percent of Colorado’s votes were cast by mail-in-ballots in recent elections. A new state voting rights expansion, enacted in May, further updated state law to create automatic mail-in balloting for all voters.
Despite this new law, the abbreviated calendar for the recall ultimately prevented clerks from automatically mailing out ballots in time to comply with constitutional time requirements. Rather than vote in the normal way or at a local precinct, citizens were required to show up at their choice of a few at-large polling locations established by the counties. The judicial wrangling over the mechanics of the recall dragged on through much of August and many voters were reportedly confused about where and when to vote.
The result was a massive drop-off in turnout.
In the 3rd Senate District, Sen. Angela Giron (D) was recalled by a 4,154 vote margin. But just 35.66 percent of registered voters (34,556) voted in the election. In her most recent election in 2010, 45,140 voters had participated — making this a decline of more than 23 percent.
In the nearby 11th Senate District, Sen. President John Morse (D) was recalled by just 343 votes. An even more paltry 17,845 voters — just 21.25 percent — took part in that election. Three years ago, 28,712 voted in the same district’s Senate elections — a turnout decline of more than 37 percent since 2010.
But in all, less than 29 percent of the eligible voters in the two districts had their voices heard. While it is impossible to know how a higher-turnout election would have broken down, it does seem that the atypical election process contributed to a far lower participation rate than Colorado’s ordinarily high standard.