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Evacuated By Wildfire And Still Need To Vote? Here's What You Need To Know To Cast Your Ballot

A ballot drop box in Larimer County. "Sign. Seal. Deliver." is written on the side.
Maxine Speier
A 24-hour ballot drop box in front of the Larimer County Clerk and Recorder building

Colorado, the U.S. Postal Service and county elections departments offer support services to ensure people can easily cast their ballot in tumultuous emergency situations. And officials say there's no need to stress about it — there’s still plenty of time.

Like a growing number of people across Northern Colorado, Shanda Woods and her husband were forced from their home in Jamestown to escape expanding wildfires.

“We just moved here, took care of our change of address/voter registration before we left and were currently waiting for confirmation or the ballot in the mail,” Woods said in a message. “We are now obviously under the mandatory evacuation notice and not sure as to the status of where it might be in the mail.”

READ MORE: The Latest Wildfire And Evacuation Updates

Thornton Streeter (left) talks to his partner's daughter, Sienna, outside of the Loveland La Quinta Inn on Friday. The family fled their home earlier this week.
Matt Bloom/KUNC
Thornton Streeter (left) talks to his partner's daughter, Sienna, outside of the Loveland La Quinta Inn on Friday. The family fled their home earlier this week.

Woods said they’ve been planning to try to get access to their mail, which she believes could have been rerouted to the Nederland Post Office, but between figuring out housing and continuing to work remotely while staying in a hotel, “honestly we haven’t had the mental space to even think about solving that problem until today.”

“We do want people to know that voting should not be something they stress about,” said Mircalla Wozniak, elections communications specialist for Boulder County.

The state, the U.S. Postal Service and county elections officials offer support services to ensure people can easily cast their ballot in tumultuous emergency situations like this. And, Wozniak said, there’s still plenty of time.

What evacuated voters need to know, generally:

  • The USPS is rerouting all mail from evacuated areas to places near evacuation points. Check here for the latest updates on reroutes as evacuation orders are placed or lifted.
  • Monday, Oct. 26, is the last day voters should try to return a ballot by mail. It is also the last day to request a replacement ballot by contacting your County Clerk and Recorder’s office. Evacuees can have that replacement sent to their temporary address.
  • After Monday, voters should either vote in-person or put their ballot in a drop box. Some drop boxes and polling centers are set up near evacuation points. There are options for people who have evacuated away from their home county (details below).
  • If regular voting channels are too difficult to access, county elections departments say they’re willing and legally able to provide special help to ensure people in emergency situations can still exercise their right to vote. To request assistance, information or advice, contact your County Clerk's office directly.

Getting and returning ballots

Mail from evacuated Jamestown and Ward residents is going to the Nederland Post Office, where Boulder has set up an evacuation point. Operations and mail from at least four other post offices have also been shifted.

“We have employees that are affected by these fires too,” said James Boxrud, a communication specialist for the United States Postal Service in Denver. “And they say ‘Oh, I need to go to Fort Collins,’ but they still want to work. We say ‘great, we'll find a spot for you. You know you can come work in Loveland or help in Fort Collins just to try to keep up with the volume and the changes.'”

READ MORE: Tiny Bellvue Post Office Delivers Mail To Hundreds Of Cameron Peak Evacuees

If people who evacuate end up being able to return home before they settle in enough to track down their mail, it will be rerouted back to their regular post office which will begin regular service — but these major reroutes do cause an initial delay.

“There's about a day it takes for us to get all the mail back down and separated, but besides that, it's pretty smooth,” Boxrud said.

That delay could matter because Colorado does not accept ballots based on when they were postmarked. They must arrive by 7 p.m. on election day (Nov. 3) to be counted.

USPS is taking “extraordinary” measures, like increased overtime and transportation, to ensure as many filled-out ballots make it in time as possible, Boxrud said. However, the Secretary of State and County Clerks across the region insist voters, regardless of how close they are to any fires, should not send in their ballots any later than Monday. (One exception is the Jackson County Clerk, who is telling their county’s voters not to send any ballots by mail “until further notice” because of the fires, Colorado Public Radio reports.)

Ross Reed sorts letters inside the Bellvue Post Office. Reed has been evacuated from his home in Red Feather Lakes for nearly 3 weeks, but still comes to work to help sort mail.
Matt Bloom/KUNC
Ross Reed sorts letters inside the Bellvue Post Office. Reed has been evacuated from his home in Red Feather Lakes for nearly 3 weeks, but still comes to work to help sort mail.

Voters who can’t make that deadline will still be able to put their ballot in a drop box or vote in person. The same 7 p.m., Nov. 3 deadline applies for both of these options as well.

“Before all of this happened, remember ballots went out on the 9th, so a lot of (evacuated people) already did receive their ballot,” said Larimer Clerk Angela Myers. “It's not a case of everybody needs a replacement, so that's why we need each individual to communicate with us so that we can help each individual with actually what they need.”

Both Boulder and Larimer Counties’ election departments said they are very prepared for carrying out the election amid such natural disasters. They haven’t heard from many evacuated voters yet, but that could change if the fires are still causing issues as election day gets even closer.

On top of being able to request a mail replacement ballot to be delivered to their new location, evacuated voters can go directly to the county clerk’s office and pick one up — even after the Oct. 26 deadline. Boulder’s “Ballot To-Go” program also allows people to drive up to one of five locations (increasing to seven by election day) and get a replacement ballot without leaving their car.

“We did get some responses on social media saying ‘my ballot was one of the things I first packed’ which, bless my heart, that is wonderful to hear,” said Wozniak, the elections communications specialist for Boulder County. “But we also want people to know that we will work with them and there is time and the Colorado election model really makes it easy to get replacement ballots, whether by mail or in person.”

In case anyone turned in their ballot just before evacuating, county election judges (with the help of local law enforcement) are still going to evacuated areas to check 24-hour drop boxes every day that they safely can.

“If that changes, we would have to have notice on our website,” said Larimer Clerk Myers. “I mean, it's not like we would leave them open and just not check them. We would go up there on one final run and lock them shut and put a notice there somehow.”

Voting far from home

Many of the evacuation points in Larimer, Grand and Boulder counties happen to already have a ballot drop box near them. And some have an open in-person polling center nearby or one that is planned to be open closer to election day. (Click the links to see a list of drop boxes and polling centers in each county.)

“Right now those (drop boxes) are still operational. We're still picking up ballots regularly and people should feel safe to return their ballots to those boxes in the mountain communities,” Wozniak said, noting that both the Nederland and Iris evacuation points will have an in-person polling center open near them in the days before Nov. 3.

Jackie Hai / KUNC

Voters who evacuated by leaving the county don’t have to come back to cast their vote, even if they miss the deadline to receive a replacement ballot or mail it back. They can instead turn in their ballot to any drop box or county clerk’s office in the state.

“We just need it in the hands of any elected official county clerk's office by that 7:00 p.m. deadline,” Wozniak said, adding that ballot counting goes on for several days after election day. “However again, I stress right now, I think there is time to make those plans and to get your ballot in time.”

She emphasized that voters in any situation that makes turning in their ballot more difficult should contact their own county clerk’s office before taking a step like this to figure out the best way to vote in time.

Larimer Clerk Myers agreed, adding that options like this are not widely discussed to prevent voter confusion. Everyone who can follow the instructions on their ballot envelope exactly should, she said.

And if all else fails?

“Communicate with us,” Myers said, repeating a common sentiment many county election officials use for issues beyond just wildfires, like voter intimidation, difficulty signing the ballot envelope and questions about election security.

“Because there are emergency processes for folks with an emergency situation, and that would certainly fall into that,” she continued. “So we just need them to contact us. Really, it's not an 'oh, everybody go do this' and if I tell you that then you're gonna have people doing something that isn't necessary for them or doesn't apply to them or is not their best answer.”

She said she didn’t want to give examples of those “emergency processes” because “I don't want the average voter to think it's an alternative for them. And voter confusion is a real thing. And I mean, if I say they can do this, that and the other and then somebody else is going to say, well, ‘I've got an emergency situation.’ Whether or not that really would qualify.”

One process (that is still discouraged before contacting the clerk’s office) is the use of a “statewide ballot,” which allows registered voters to request a ballot at any polling center in the state. The ballot will not have any local ballot initiatives or races on it, only state and national.

“But I would encourage that voter (who is considering using a statewide ballot), if there is an issue, to first contact us so we can work with them to see what we can do and and and again use that emergency voting platform if necessary,” Wozniak said.

Again, clerks across Northern Colorado say they want voters to reach out to them with questions, concerns or curiosities about the election. Find out how to contact yours here.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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