More than 200 new laws took effect Friday in Colorado, including two measures to ensure college students, Native Americans and residents with disabilities have equal and fair access to the ballot box.
As a result of the laws, a ballot drop box and a new voter service and polling center will be set up during most elections at the Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall, where students who need to register to vote, request a ballot or drop off a ballot can do so, said Tiffany Parker, La Plata County clerk and recorder.
In previous elections, groups, such as the La Plata County Democrats, collected ballots from students at FLC and took them to official polling places to ensure their ballots were cast.
In November, about 1,206 voters residing at or near the college participated out of the 2,555 registered voters in that area, representing a 47% turnout, compared with a 62% turnout countywide, Parker said.
AnnaMarie McCorvie, who worked for New Era Colorado Foundation to encourage students to vote in the November election, found some students didn’t have cars to drive to a service center or ballot boxes, which is a barrier to voting the new center will remove, she said.
“It will just give the students at Fort Lewis a lot more power to do a lot more of the voting process themselves,” she said.
A new state law requires counties to set up voter service centers at college campuses with more than 2,000 students ahead of the presidential primary election in March 2020, Parker said.
The state provided funding for the new center that must be set up a day before an election and on Election Day, she said. It will not be set up for city of Durango elections, she said.
New state law also requires counties to provide voter service and polling centers on Native American reservations, if tribes request one.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has not requested a new voter service and polling center, Parker said. A 24/7 ballot drop box is provided at Farmers Fresh in Ignacio during elections and the tribe is happy with that service, she said.
The law also allows Native Americans who do not have an address recognized by the U.S. Postal Service to register to vote using the unrecognized address, the tribal council headquarters address or any other address approved by the tribal council.
Parker has never had a problem finding addresses for Southern Ute tribal members because of the tribe’s advanced geographic information system, she said.
Montezuma County Clerk and Recorder Kim Purcell said she had not received a request for a voter service center from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and she has not encountered problems with tribal members’ inability to provide addresses.
The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations are the only two Native American reservations in Colorado.
For many Native Americans across the country, the lack of an address recognized by the U.S. Postal Service can put them at risk of being left out of elections, said Jacqueline De León, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
The recent change to Colorado law to help ensure Native Americans can vote is similar to national legislation the Native American Rights Fund is fighting for to help stop voter suppression on reservations, De León said. But the fund did not work on the state’s recently passed law, she said.
“Colorado really picked up the ball and ran with it,” she said.
Many Native Americans live in unmarked houses and rely on post office boxes that they share with other family members, De León said. Some reservations are dealing with housing shortages, leaving many Native Americans without stable housing, she said.
“There are tens of thousands of Native Americans that don’t have a consistent address,” she said.
Voters with disabilities will also receive new accommodations under state law, but it’s unknown exactly how those will work, Parker said.
The plan is to send ballots to residents with disabilities electronically, if they have trouble filling out a paper ballot, she said. For example, if a voter was blind or visually impaired, he or she could use his or her own computer at home to fill it out, she said.
The planned system is intended to give those with disabilities the ability to vote privately at home as other voters do, but it has not yet been developed, she said.
“It’s going to take some time to make sure we’re capturing what the disabled community needs,” she said.
The recent election changes are part of major revisions Colorado has made to its election system, including moving to all-mail elections and extending the right to vote to all parolees.
Following all these changes, Parker said she would like the state to take a break from tweaking election rules.
“I hope that now we can take time to perfect what we’ve implemented and not make these big changes every year,” she said.