Who Is In Charge

Ballot returns inch up to 33 percent

Updated Nov. 5 – Almost exactly a third of the 3.09 million ballots sent to Colorado voters this election had been returned as of Election Day morning.

Chart of ballots cast
Ballots cast in largest counties as of Nov. 5, 9:30 a.m.
The Department of State reported that 1,030,487 ballots had been returned. That includes 412,369 cast by Republican registered voters, 328,707 by Democrats and 280,421 by unaffiliated voters.

The number of ballots returned indicates that more than 400,000 additional ballots will have to hit county clerks’ offices before 7 p.m. if turnout is to reach the 50 percent seen in 2011.

Denver, heavily Democratic and the county with the largest number of active voters, had reached a 26 percent return rate. Douglas, a key Republican-leaning county, was at 44 percent of ballots return, and other large GOP counties like El Paso, Weld and Mesa was above 30 percent. The only large Democratic-leaning counties with more than 30 percent of ballots returned were Boulder and Pueblo.

A low turnout, particularly in Democratic counties, could be worrisome for Amendment 66 backers, given the widely cited view that the campaign needs to draw voters who don’t normally vote in off-year elections in order to pass the $950 million state income tax increase.

Just over a quarter of ballots had been cast as of Monday morning.

Veteran campaign consultant Katy Atkinson said Monday the turnout “sounds about average” for an off-year election and that while A66 backers probably are “hoping for a high turnout, it’s not necessarily bad news for them either.”

Atkinson said, “All or most Democrats are probably yes votes” but that it’s “just about impossible to predict how Republicans will be voting,” adding that A66 likely will have some support from Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

“The big question is how big a chunk” that will be, Atkinson said. “My sense is that this is going to be close.”

Another experienced consultant, Lynea Hansen, thinks the Republican-Democratic gap will narrow by 7 p.m. Tuesday. “We have a tradition of Democrats voting on Election Day,” she said, even in an all-mail election.

She noted there was significant Democratic turnout on Election Day in 2011, which also was largely all-mail. “I definitely think Amendment 66 is going to come down to the wire,” and the result will depend on whether the pro-66 campaign gets its supporters to vote.

Consultant Eric Sondemann said the number of ballots returned “strikes me as a very modest turnout.” He agreed that more Democrats than Republicans vote on Election Day but that “There’s going to have to be a hell of a surge tomorrow” for Democrats to close the gap.

Backers of A66 made a last in-person push on Saturday as about 740 paid and volunteer canvassers went door-to-door in 11 communities around the state.

Campaign rally
Mayor Michael Hancock spoke to A66 supporters Saturday in Denver. (Photo courtesy Colorado Committs to Kids)

High-profile Democratic politicians turned at A66 rallies. “Every minute counts, every step counts and every door knocked counties,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told canvassers after they returned from working in Aurora.

Mayor Michael Hancock rallied volunteers in Denver, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia spoke to Fort Collins canvassers.

A panel of experts did a “pre-mortem” on A66 during a discussion sponsored by the Buechner Institute of Governance at the University of Colorado Denver.

“I do think it will be close,” said Norma Anderson, a former Republican legislative leader from Jefferson County. Anderson, who opposes A66, noted, “The one thing about the people in Colorado, they don’t like a raise in taxes.”

Andrew Freedman, A66 campaign manager, predicted the measure will pass and cautioned, “Don’t read too much” into early ballot returns. (About 23 percent of ballots had been returned as of Friday morning.)

“There’s a lot of turnout game to be played,” said Hansen, who also was on the panel. “Democrats don’t turn their ballots in until later in the game.”

Hansen also noted that turnout may be affected by other political controversies that have been in the news, including gun control, marijuana taxes and civil unions. “All of this frames the debate. Such distractions won’t necessarily change voters’ minds about A66, but “It’s changing who’s voting” and will affect turnout.

Panel members also were coaxed into “what if” speculation by moderator Paul Teske.

“If it fails you’re not going to pass another tax increase unless it’s a minor one,” predicted Anderson.

“If it doesn’t pass we have to make another stab at finding the right solution,” said Hansen, who personally supports A66.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said, “We can’t use 66 [losing] as an excuse to not do the things we know that we fundamentally need to be doing” in education reform. (The chamber has supported A66’s accompanying legislation, Senate Bill 13-213, but remained neutral on the amendment.)

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.