The Republican sponsor of a bill to reduce early voting centers says it will actually increase access

Colorado Common Cause disagrees: “The bill makes dramatic reductions in the options available for voters.”

District 27 Representative Jack Tate and his wife Kathleen. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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District 27 Representative Jack Tate and his wife Kathleen. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
State Sen. Jack Tate with his wife Kathleen on the first day of the session. Tate’s Senate Bill 71 would reduce the number of early voting centers but expand hours closer to Election Day. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

State Sen. Jack Tate wants people to know: This is not what it looks like.

Senate Bill 71 would reduce by more than half the number of in-person early voting centers in the first week of early voting in larger counties. And reducing opportunities for early voting has frequently been seen as — and sometimes has been — a tactic used by Republicans to reduce turnout by traditionally Democratic constituencies.

But SB 71, which is scheduled for its second vote Friday in the Republican-controlled Senate but still needs a sponsor, hopefully a Democrat, in the state House, also increases the hours that in-person polling centers would be open in the second week of early voting and then increases them even more in the last days before the election.

Tate said that increases access for voters without increasing cost to the counties because the savings from having fewer centers will be used to extend hours during the days that more people are voting. Advocates for making it easer to vote, like Colorado Common Cause, say the trade-off goes way too far and isn’t a good deal for voters.

Every county has to have at least one in-person voting location.

These centers are used by people who prefer to vote in person but also by people with disabilities who need an accessible voting machine. Voter Service and Polling Centers are also locations where people can register to vote and update their information.

Under current law, counties with more than 25,000 active electors have to have one in-person center for every 30,000 active voters during the 15 days before the election. SB 71, a version of which Tate ran last year unsuccessfully, would change that to one center for every 75,000 voters during the first week of early voting and end the requirement that voter service and polling centers be open on the first Saturday of early voting.

According to an analysis by the Legislative Council Staff, Denver, the state’s largest county, could go from 14 required early voting centers to just six in the first week of voting and nine in the second week of voting. On Election Day and the preceding Monday, Denver would have to have 27 centers. (The Elections Division operated 26 centers on Election Day 2016.)

The next largest counties — Jefferson and El Paso — would go from 13 centers to six in the first week and eight in the second week, while Arapahoe County would go from 13 to five in the first week and eight in the second week. (There’s some rounding involved in arriving at these numbers.)

Amendments to the original bill keep the reduced number of centers but require them to be open until 6 p.m. on days 8 through 12 of early voting and to be open six or eight hours, depending on the size of the county, on Saturday, instead of the current requirement of four hours. Centers would also have to be open until 7 p.m. the Monday before the election, just as they are on Election Day.

“What we’re trying to do is lower the number of minimum locations on days one through 12 and then expanding the hours where there is the bulk of usage,” Tate said. “We might see more utilization of those centers.”

Tate says this is about using resources efficiently. Across the state, voter service centers averaged just two voters an hour doing the first week of early voting and just five voters per hour in the second week of early voting. Those numbers pick up considerably starting on the Saturday before an election.

“Voter behavior is no different than me trying to get some research paper done in grad school: Wait until the last minute. That’s what the data shows over three elections,” he said.

The bill also requires that counties that have large institutions of higher learning like the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the Auraria campus in Denver maintain voting centers on those campuses.

“Even Hillary up in Boulder supports this,” he added.

That’s Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall, a Democrat, and yes, she does.

“The bill would help counties align staffing resources to better serve the voting public,” she said in an email. “Currently, data shows that voters who prefer to vote in person do so more frequently during the last few days leading up to Election Day. This bill would allow for counties to reduce the number of locations in the weeks leading up to Election Day, when very few voters use the voting centers, and instead allocate resources to the Saturday and Monday before Election Day with increased hours of operation.”

Mica Ward, a spokeswoman for the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office, said Clerk Debra Johnson is still reviewing the amendments and waiting to see the final version of the bill before taking a position. Alton Brown, a spokesman for the Elections Division, said the continued availability of in-person voting is a priority for the clerk’s office.

In 2016, about 8 percent of Denver voters voted in person, and more than than half of those did so on Election Day. The county averaged around 271 in-person voters a day during the first week of early voting.

The League of Women Voters testified in support of the bill, but the expanded hours don’t satisfy Colorado Common Cause, an organization that advocates for “open, honest and accountable government.” In practical terms, that means easier voting, more public participation and more transparency around money in politics. Common Cause highlighted its concerns about the availability of in-person voting options in its legislative session preview on its website:

“Although most Coloradans vote by mail, it is still vitally important to provide Coloradans with the option to vote in-person at Voter Service & Polling Centers (VSPCs),” the organization wrote. “Maintaining these options is absolutely necessary for Coloradans who need to register to vote, want to vote on an accessible voting machine or prefer to vote in person.”

In an email, Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Elena Nunez said the changes don’t add enough access to make up for the loss of early voting centers.

“As amended, the bill makes dramatic reductions in the options available for voters,” she wrote. “Any changes to our law should be focused on making it more convenient for voters to participate. While the bill includes some minimal expansions in service right before Election Day, it isn’t enough to meet the needs of Coloradans.”

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.