A Commitment to Full Participation and “Customer Service”
An Interview with Judd Choate, Director of Elections in the Colorado Secretary of State’s office
Over the last twenty years, Colorado has emerged as one of the leading states for voter-encouraging policies and has risen from 26th in voter turnout to 2nd. How has that happened? What can other states learn from Colorado’s example? To find out the answers to that, I interviewed Judd Choate, the Director of Elections in the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Here is the interview, and it’s clear that Choate himself is one of those answers.
Miles Rapoport: When and how did you come to be Colorado’s Director of Elections?
Judd Choate: I started out as a Professor at the University of Nebraska, where I taught campaigns and elections, as well as U.S. institutions. My wife was hired as the Director of the Colorado Institute of Public Policy. I could have stayed in academia, but I opted for law school and became an election lawyer with a Colorado firm. In 2009 the state election director position opened up. In those eleven years, I have worked under two Republican Secretaries and two Democratic ones, including our current Secretary, Jena Griswold.
MR: How big is the Elections Division, and what are its principal responsibilities?
JC: The Elections Division has 40 employees altogether, and our responsibilities encompass the full range of election issues in the state, including campaign finance, ballot access, voter registration, voting systems and election administration, enforcement, and legal issues that arise. Recently, we added a new unit on election security, something of a sign of the times.
MR: How have Colorado’s election laws and procedures changed? How did Colorado move from 26th in the country in voter turnout in 2000 to 2nd in 2018?
JC: Probably the biggest single factor was the enactment of no-excuse absentee balloting, and creating a permanent absentee ballot list. Those two policy changes, which happened during the early 2000’s, took Colorado from 10 percent vote by mail to 75% by 2012.
In 2013, a major piece of legislation passed that largely completed ‘the Colorado model’. It included expanded mail voting, same-day voter registration, and the establishment of Vote Centers for early voting and Election Day. Our Secretary of State at the time was a Republican, Scott Gessler, but the legislation passed without one Republican vote in the Colorado General Assembly. Since then, most election legislation has passed on a bipartisan basis, including Automatic Voter registration with a strong ‘back-end’ procedure, meaning that voters are automatically added to the list whenever they interact with the Department of Motor vehicles, and are later give the option to opt-out of being registered when they receive their voter registration confirmation. Oregon was the first state to adopt the system, but we’re now actually more Oregon than Oregon.
MR: How has the Colorado model worked from your point of view?
JC: I think it has worked incredibly well. It has really ushered in what I think is the most important feature of Colorado’s elections, which is the idea that the State Elections Division should first and foremost have a customer service orientation. We haven’t viewed it as voting rights advocacy, but rather that we are an agency with four million customers, and our principal job is to make the election work easily for all of them. That has meant the adoption of lots of small changes that continue to improve our voter experience, and as a result we have risen to #2 turnout, only behind Minnesota, and I’ve told my friends in Minnesota that we are coming for the top spot. We are hoping to get close to an 80% turnout among eligible voters this year, which has never been done in the history of U.S. elections.
MR: The subject of voter fraud, especially with large numbers of mailed ballots, has been front and center in the national conversation. What has been your experience in Colorado?
JC: There is an infinitesimal number of voter fraud cases in Colorado. And we look for it. We look under every couch cushion, looking for voter fraud, and we don’t find it. In 2016 and 2018, a total of 5.2 million votes were cast in Colorado, and there were fewer than 80 individual cases of fraudulent voting. We are a member of ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, which is a comprehensive way of states comparing lists and looking for duplicate registrations. We simply don’t find examples of people voting twice by crossing state lines or in any other way.
We believe voter registration is the key — the essential element to getting the system to work.
MR: Given all that Colorado has done, what is next on the agenda for improving voting?
JC: Well, we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit. So, there’s not much more that we can accomplish other than perfect our current strategy. We believe voter registration is the key — the essential element to getting the system to work. We are doing significant outreach in that area, with one focus being on young people. We pre-register young people at 16, and we allow 17 year-olds to vote in a primary if they will turn 18 before the General Election. We have a Youth Advisory Council that is constantly suggesting new initiatives to drive up young voter interest.
I think our next major initiative will not be so much about voting, but about campaign finance reform. Money still has a disproportionate amount of sway in our elections. As much as possible, we should remove that disproportionate influence from the Colorado’s election process, and make the elections as ‘clean’ as possible.
On the registration side, one area I have been thinking about, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon, is to end the disenfranchisement of people who are incarcerated. Maine, Vermont, and Washington, DC have decoupled the question of voting rights from criminal conviction entirely, and that is worth seriously pursuing.
MR: As you know, the Universal Voting Working Group of the Ash Center and the Brookings Institution have recently released a report recommending that states and municipalities begin to treat voting as a required obligation of citizenship, the way we do now with serving on a jury. What do you think of that idea?
JC: Well, my original impulse was not to like it, to resist the idea of coercing people to vote. I guess this was a vestige of being brought up to think that ‘freedom’ trumps everything else. But upon reflection, I don’t have a problem with it. Australia does it, and it seems to work. I think it has become a societal norm there, and much less a matter of compulsion. So I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
MR: Looking ahead to November, how optimistic or pessimistic are you about how the election will go, both in Colorado and nationally?
JC: For Colorado, I am optimistic. We have created an excellent model, we have had elections with almost-universal vote by mail for years, and it works. Nationally, I’m sure there will be fumbles based on states making a hard pivot to vote by mail. They will mostly be mistakes of omission rather than substantive errors.
My biggest concern is that if the election is close, people may not believe in the outcome due to the rhetoric of certain candidates, social media and the press. If people don’t believe the outcome of an election, that is an existential threat to the very concept of democracy.
MR: Lastly, what advice would you like to give to other election administrators in other states?
JC: I’d say, Call me. We have a model in Colorado that works really well, based on the widespread use of mail, and expansive registration and voting opportunities. I would love to see other states adopt our fully inclusive, customer service orientation.
MR: Thanks so much, Judd, and good luck in November!
Watch “Election 2020: What Keeps You Up at Night?” a virtual event featuring Judd Choate and other election experts
About the Author Miles Rapoport
Miles Rapoport, a longtime organizer, policy advocate, and elected official, brings to the Ash Center four decades of experience working to strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in the United States. Prior to his appointment to the Ash Center, Rapoport was most recently president of the independent grassroots organization Common Cause. For 13 years, he headed the public policy center Demos.
Rapoport previously served as Connecticut’s Secretary of the State and a state legislator for ten years in Hartford. He has written, spoken, and organized widely on issues of American democracy. He was a member of the Harvard class of 1971.