As Colorado goes Election Night, so goes the nation — maybe.
The Centennial State is clearly a barometer of Barack Obama's falling popularity. The man who began his meteoric rise as the Democratic presidential nominee in Denver's stadium in 2008 has lost much of his luster with Colorado voters and appears to be bringing down other Democrats with him. Polls show Republican Cory Gardner ahead by seven points in his race to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez is neck and neck with sitting Gov. John HIckenlooper. But before Republicans pop the champagne corks, it is worth considering the big wild card in this election.
Like the rest of Colorado's roughly three million registered voters, I received my ballot in the mail about two weeks ago. This year will be the first that all Colorado voters received mail ballots, even without requesting them. The potential for thousands more voters to cast ballots in what is usually a low-turnout midterm election could easily confound pollsters and politicos. Conventional wisdom is that higher turnout favors Democrats — and the odds of higher turnout helping Dems in Colorado seem somewhat greater given the demographics of the state.
Some 14 percent of eligible voters in Colorado are Hispanic. In 2012, Obama improved his share of support among Colorado Hispanic voters from 61 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2012. If mail ballots boost Hispanic voter participation by a few percentage points this year, it will likely redound to Democratic candidates' benefit. In a race as tight as the Colorado governor's race, Hispanic voters could well determine the outcome.
But demographics don't give the full picture. Since 2008, Democrats have benefited from a much stronger ground game that put operatives in the field to turn out their likely voters. The effort wasn't enough to stop populist tea party voters from boosting GOP fortunes in the 2010 congressional races, but Colorado was the exception. Democrat Michael Bennet won an open Senate race with just 30,000 more votes than his Republican opponent, Ken Buck. The question in 2014 is whether mail balloting helps or erases the Democrats' edge.
A New York Times analysis of Colorado mail ballots that had already been tallied 10 days out from the election seemed to give Republicans an advantage. Registered Republicans had mailed in ballots in higher numbers than Democrats, 42.8 percent to 32.3 percent. But those trends may not continue. It could be that more Republicans simply cast their ballots early, which is where the Democratic ground game will come in handy. Early voting makes it easier for "volunteers" — many of them paid political and union operatives — to go door to door to urge those who haven't voted to do so.
One other factor should give everyone who cares about democracy heartburn: the potential for voter fraud in Colorado's mail ballots. The ballot I received two weeks ago sat on my kitchen counter for days, as did my husband's. I finally cast mine, being careful to sign the back of the ballot envelope and put extra postage on it before putting it outside in my mailbox. But I have to admit, I worried afterward about whether it would actually make it to the elections office. It just didn't feel as secure as showing up at a polling place.
Who is to stop "volunteers" from showing up with dozens of mail ballots collected from elderly voters or others who may have been pressured by union reps or family members to cast their votes? Colorado will have regulations in place to limit the number of ballots a single individual can drop off at collection centers after 2015, but this year the possibility of ballot stuffing is real.
Colorado election officials claim that the signature on the ballot envelope is their way to detect phony ballots. But the system hardly seems foolproof, requiring signatures to be scanned and matched against a database that may prove more cumbersome than anticipated.
November 4 will be a test for Colorado — and for the nation — on this new experiment in democracy.