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Dems term HD17 a “voting desert” before county added more voting sites

Pushing for polls

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Tony Exum Sr. will return to the state House. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Tony Exum Sr. will return to the state House.
On Nov. 6, Democrat Tony Exum Sr. defied convention by solidly capturing a second consecutive term in a Colorado House district that has long flipped Republican in midterm election years.

But some leaders of the El Paso County Democratic Party say he likely wouldn’t have prevailed had they not sought expansion of the number of polling places in and near House District 17, which is located in the city’s diverse Southeast, where many depend on public transportation. The area is also home to many military members, who might move often and thus may not be able to rely on mail ballots.

“[The county] had them [voting centers] on the edge of his district, but not in the core,” says party chair Electra Johnson, calling the early plan for polling in the district “a virtual voting desert.”

Election official Angela Leath says the county followed the normal course in trying to place voting centers within a five-minute drive of voters while assuring the centers comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, sit near bus routes and provide ample space to accommodate the voting process.

“When we’re looking at picking voter service centers,” she says, “we have a list of criteria — availability, bus routes, space, public restrooms. We do not look at what district they’re in. We don’t look at party affiliation. We’re looking at registered voters in general and what benefits the general population.”

Still, after the Democrats insisted on more polling places along or near South Academy Boulevard, which bisects HD17, the county added two.

“In the end, they did respond,” Johnson says, “but we had to create a big stink about it. They were trying to put up roadblocks, and that’s one way to control things — put up barriers.”

Since 2008, Democrats have won HD17 in presidential election years and lost it to a Republican in the midterms, when turnout is lower (see chart below).

HD17 has the lowest number of registered voters of any House district in the state, and the HD17 race attracted the lowest number of voters to the polls of any House race in Colorado in the last three consecutive elections.

So it’s no surprise that Democrats wanted to see people streaming to the polls last week. “When voters vote, Tony gets elected,” Johnson says.

And he prevailed, even though only 18,093 people voted. (By comparison, in 2016, when Exum last won, 23,174 people cast a ballot in the race, but in 2014, when Exum lost to Republican Catherine “Kit” Roupe, just 14,314 people voted.)

If those two added centers did indeed attract voters who otherwise would have skipped their civic duty, they may have turned the tide for more than just the HD17 contest.

Perhaps most notable: Harrison School District 2’s 4E, which passed by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, with 16,575 votes cast.

The district’s first debt measure in 18 years asked voters for $180 million in bonds for capital improvement projects to be repaid with a $16.2 million tax increase annually. The money will be spent on school renovation, improved technology and security measures, as well as ADA compliance.

“I would have to suspect that [more voting center options] would have had some impact,” says Harrison School Board Chair Steven Seibert. But he also notes advocates mounted a “well fought” campaign, walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors.

The Democrats’ fight for those extra voter centers began with a July 20 email from Leath to Johnson regarding voting sites. In it, Leath said the Southeast YMCA, at 2190 Jet Wing Drive, and Sand Creek Library, 1821 S. Academy Blvd., “are not available to us this year” and that county officials had yet to secure a spot at The Citadel mall as a voting site.

But Johnson tells the Independent that Democratic officials had already opened a dialogue with the Pikes Peak Library District, which agreed to host a voting center at its Sand Creek location. The Citadel also seemed open to the idea, Johnson says.

Johnson notes The Citadel is on a bus route and people are familiar with its location. However, Leath says the mall hasn’t been used for a polling center since 2012.

Following dialogue, the county ended up securing six voting sites either within HD17 or on its borders, including the library and The Citadel. The Zalman Center at Harrison High School, the library, and Victory World Outreach Church, 3150 S. Academy, lie within the district, while the Powers DMV office, Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and The Citadel, sit just outside HD17’s boundaries.

Together, they saw more than 2,700 voters opting to cast ballots at the polls, about 300 votes shy of Exum’s 3,021-vote margin of victory in the mail-in ballot election. The two sites collecting the most votes in Exum’s race — the Citadel (783) and Powers DMV (646) — lie outside the district.

Mike Maday, the county Democratic party’s voter protection coordinator, says without the extra centers, he thinks many people would have struggled to make it to the polls. “It’s positive the Democratic party was able to collaborate with the clerk’s office and get good coverage on South Academy for folks that live there,” he says.

Exum says he’s glad voters had more options, which he believes played a role in his victory.

House District 17 teeter-totter

2008

Dennis Apuan (D) - 7,778 votes
Kit Roupe (R) - 7,239 votes

2010

Mark Barker (R) - 4,807
Apuan - 4,155

2012

Tony Exum (D) - 11,212
Barker - 7,757

2014

Roupe - 6,766
Exum - 6,477

2016

Exum - 11,445
Roupe - 9,613

2018

Exum - 10,557
Roupe - 7,536

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