Inside the frenzied push to chase every vote in a Colorado State Board of Education race

At the office park suite that houses the Arapahoe County Democratic Party, the election goes on. Amid empty pizza boxes and stacks of yard signs, political operatives and volunteers gather to discuss how to convince a group of voters that their votes — which haven’t been counted — still matter.

Similar conversations and efforts are underway this week in Republican circles, spurred on by word of mouth on Facebook and with support from the state party.

The two parties are chasing every last ballot in what was an afterthought going into Election Day — the race for the State Board of Education seat representing the 6th Congressional District.

With Democrat Rebecca McClellan rallying past Republican incumbent Debora Scheffel to take a narrow lead, the parties are mobilizing efforts to contact voters whose ballots were not counted on Nov. 8 because of missing signatures, signatures that don’t match what’s on record or missing identification. (In Colorado, new voters are required to show ID when they register).

Clerks in the district’s three counties were required to mail letters to thousands of voters alerting them of the discrepancies along with printed affidavits they can email or fax back.

Party activists, in turn, are relying on public lists identifying those voters — and then targeting them with phone calls and door-knocks based on their party affiliation.

It’s an arduous task known as “ballot curing.” At stake is partisan control of the State Board of Education as it contemplates seeing through a new federal education law, reviewing the state’s academic standards and imposing sanctions on low-performing districts and schools.

The clock is ticking. By state law, voters with rejected ballots have until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday to return signed affidavits to their county clerks affirming that their ballots are valid.

“It really just goes to show that the race is not over till it’s over,” said Democratic communications specialist JoyAnn Ruscha, who was political director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in Colorado.

Parts of Arapahoe County account for a lion’s share of the electorate in the 6th Congressional District. Smaller slices of Douglas and Adams counties are also part of the district, which has a fairly even mix of Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Scheffel took the lead in early returns, but McClellan kept gaining and overtook her rival on Friday by 959 votes, giving her 50.14 percent of the vote to Scheffel’s 49.86 percent. McClellan padded her lead Monday with more results from Adams County, giving her a 1,125-vote edge. More votes tallied Tuesday brought McClellan’s lead down to 1,062 votes over Scheffel.

Scheffel said Monday that the Republican effort to run down the remaining ballots “is really not centralized. People have offered to help and we’re trying to piece it together best we can.” She said the state GOP has provided volunteers and database assistance.

“We are certainly working hard to make sure every voter’s ballot gets counted,” said Scheffel, who has called voters herself. “It’s a challenge. Some people are, of course, following this closely and understand what is going on. Others may not be attuned to it.”

Scheffel said she welcomed the opportunity to put a greater spotlight on education issues, including data privacy concerns that have been a hallmark of her tenure on the board.

McClellan, a former Centennial City Council member, also welcomed another chance to bring home her biggest campaign talking point — that if elected, she would be the only state board member with a kid in public schools. (Her daughter graduated from Cherry Creek High School last year, and her son is a freshman there now).

“We all want to see when we cast our vote that our vote makes a difference. And collectively, it does,” McClellan said. “But it’s pretty rare for a voter to have their individual vote make a difference. With the vote coming down to such a tiny margin, it makes every last vote that comes in before the deadline a really powerful vote.”

All three counties have finished counting ballots cast by mail or in person that machines didn’t reject. That leaves provisional ballots, military and overseas ballots, and the ballots set aside for some sort of irregularity. Here’s what we know about the votes still out there:

ARAPAHOE COUNTY: Elections officials flagged 2,814 ballots that were not counted because of signature issues and other problems. (Note: Not all of those voters had the McClellan-Scheffel race on the ballot because portions of Arapahoe County are in not in that congressional district).

So far, 564 of those ballots have been processed and are included in the reported results, county spokeswoman Haley McKean said. Another 455 provisional ballots remain to be verified and tabulated. Although provisional ballots must be verified and counted by the 14th day after Election Day — Nov. 22, in this case — the county is processing these ballots now and hopes to finish them by Friday, McKean said.

The county mailed 3,233 military and overseas ballots and as of Friday received back 2,637, which have been counted. That leaves 596 more, and Wednesday is the deadline for the county to receive them. McKean said the county will likely next update its vote tally at noon Friday.

Given that Arapahoe County is key to the outcome of the race, that vote dump could decide it.

DOUGLAS COUNTY: About 3,000 ballots were set aside for irregularities in the Republican stronghold, officials said. However, Douglas County is a relatively small piece of the pie here, with Highlands Ranch and a couple of Parker precincts the only parts of the county in the 6th Congressional District.

Also, Democrats opposed to the conservative majority on the Douglas County school board are a motivated bunch, making this less of a slam-dunk for Republicans than in the past.

As of Monday, an additional 186 provisional ballots and 130 overseas/military ballots had yet to be processed, county officials said. Under state statute, provisional ballots can’t be counted until the deadline has passed for “curing” ballots set aside for irregularities.

ADAMS COUNTY: The county set aside about 3,200 rejected ballots for signature, ID and other issues — so all those votes are up for grabs at the moment. Although the county leans Democratic, Scheffel is beating McClellan there. However, Adams County also has voters living in three different congressional districts, so there are not a ton of votes to chase.

The county has been including irregular ballots that have been found to be valid and overseas/military ballots in its counts made public so far.

Activists are focusing on rejected ballots because that’s where they can make an impact.

Kanda Calef said she wasn’t tracking the state board race closely until she heard about the closeness and importance of the contest. A member of the El Paso County Republican Party executive committee, Calef said the GOP is emphasizing to voters the importance of standing up to “an out-of-state special interest group” trying to influence the lives of Colorado kids.

She is referring to the roughly $150,000 reported spent supporting McClellan’s bid by a political action committee tied to Democrats for Education Reform.

“It’s a tough job,” Calef said of convincing voters to act at this point. “People have to cold-call. And it’s weird for most people who get these calls. They say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Democrats have a different message to sell — that after the misery of seeing Donald Trump win the presidency, Democrats can win control of a governing board long controlled by the GOP.

“I saw so many people after the election obviously very sad, and I saw folks that had come into the party (during the election) that are newer, as far as activism,” said Ruscha, the Sanders delegate. Many young Democrats are “activated and inspired,” she said.

“It’s not just saving a seat but it’s taking a seat,” Ruscha said. “A lot of us felt activated in that we understand the importance of public education, but also the importance of anti-bullying initiatives, of culturally responsive education. There are a lot of important issues.”

Jen Walmer, Colorado state director for Democrats for Education Reform, said Tuesday that efforts to cure ballots are not about one candidate, but about votes.

“We’re thrilled Democrats across the state are volunteering to ensure every Democratic ballot was counted,” she said.

Democrats’ goal is simple: to maintain McClellan’s edge and keep the race out of automatic recount territory. For that to happen, under state law, the difference between the candidates must be less than or equal to one-half of 1 percent of the winner’s total vote count.

A steady stream of volunteers flowed into Arapahoe County Democratic headquarters in Aurora all weekend. A room was reserved for training. Phones buzzed. A guy in a Colorado College T-shirt wondered aloud whether Bernie Sanders would have made a difference.

David Sabados, chairman of the Colorado Young Democrats, was directing traffic. He wasn’t too eager to share much with a reporter about the mobilization of activists around what had been an under-the-radar race that was the very definition of “down ballot.” He didn’t want to give Republicans an edge, he explained, in the battle to make every vote count.

In any case, volunteers don’t mention the state board race to voters whose ballots have been flagged for problems, said Sabados, a campaign consultant who mounted an unsuccessful bid last year to become chairman of the state Democratic party.

“Honestly, everyone has their own approach to what they say,” he said. “But generally, we lead with, ‘My name’s Dave. I’m here with the Democratic Party. Did you receive a letter from the county clerk saying there was a problem with your ballot? I am happy to help you fix that.’”