Back in February, David Sislowski was sitting at a coffee shop in Windsor when a friend suggested he make an Instagram account for his mayoral campaign. That must be a joke, the former corporate lawyer thought. He’d never even used the app before.
After some resistance, the friend walked him through the process of setting up an account. He took a selfie and posted it, thinking the whole thing was kind of funny.
“Looking back, it was a smart move,” he said. Within a few short weeks, all of his in-person campaign events were cancelled to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“I realized that before the virus, social media was secondary or tertiary in terms of my game plan,” he said. “It suddenly became a priority. It became the thing I had to do.”
On Tuesday, residents of Windsor and more than 100 other municipalities across Colorado will submit their votes for new mayors, town board members and local ballot questions. Gov. Jared Polis recently issued guidance that despite the growing human and economic toll of the COVID-19 outbreak, Coloradans should still participate in their local elections using mail-in ballots and drop off boxes.
“We want to ensure that this pandemic does not impact our democratic process,” Polis said. “It’s critical that Coloradans stay home during this time to the extent they can, but it’s also critical that they exercise their right to vote in all elections whether it’s for your fire district, electric co-op, or town.”
Barred from the traditional methods of winning over voters, such as soliciting support door-to-door and hosting living room potlucks, local candidates have turned to social media as the only avenue to reach voters who are stuck at home.
For those that aren’t used to using it, pivoting to the medium has been a challenge.
Increased online communication has also given voters a more candid impression of local candidates who, like them, are also trying to navigate the new world of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Sislowski has learned that on Instagram, videos get more views. In one, he responds to voter questions in his living room arm chair. In another, Sislowski walks his dog alone in his neighborhood.
“Carly and I would both appreciate it if you would vote David for mayor,” Sislowski says as he scoops the pooch up in his arms and turns to face the camera. The video got more than 1,200 views.
In a recent Facebook Live broadcast from his kitchen, Windsor mayoral candidate Paul Rennemeyer poked fun at his own appearance.
“Coming to you from my kitchen in my latest, scruffiest fashion,” Rennemeyer said before launching into a speech outlining his opinions on local road improvements and affordable housing projects.
All three candidates for mayor in Windsor missed a chance to introduce themselves to voters at an official candidate forum in mid-March. Residents were supposed to come and pose questions directly to the political hopefuls.
But on the same day as the forum, the town manager declared a local state of emergency. The event was immediately cancelled for health and safety reasons.
In response, Rennemeyer and his campaign staff have had to answer voter questions one at a time through email and Facebook. While manageable, the effort has taken a lot of extra time and energy, he said.
“My ability to connect with people is face-to-face,” Rennemeyer said. “Not having the forum changed the landscape. It did take that ability to directly put your message in front of the voters away.”
Hunter Rivera, another candidate for mayor, spent weeks preparing for the forum. As an 18-year-old senior at Windsor Charter Academy, he wanted to prove to residents he was serious about the job.
“I spent probably six or seven hours the weekend before, just going through what I had prepared,” Rivera said. “We put a lot of time into it and it was definitely a big letdown when it got cancelled.”
Instead, he and his uncle were able to organize a Q&A on Zoom. About a dozen people tuned in. While different, the event was a success, Rivera said.
On March 30, he posted a photo on Facebook of him at his dining room table filling out a paper ballot, encouraging others to vote amid the crisis. It was also his birthday.
“Today I officially turned 18 and you know what that means,” Rivera wrote. “I now meet all the qualifications to become the mayor of Windsor. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy out there! And please remember to vote for me!”
The post got 75 likes.
Meanwhile in Erie, the town’s mayoral candidates did get a public forum ahead of election day. The local League of Women Voters chapter hosted the event on Zoom.
It was also livestreamed on Facebook, where nearly 4,000 people watched.
Candidates for mayor and town board populated the app’s video chat room. For more than two hours, they answered questions on subjects ranging from traffic problems to oil and gas development.
“It probably reached more people than could’ve come to an event in person,” said Jennifer Carroll, Erie’s incumbent mayor.
Despite the increased exposure, Carroll said she missed the more traditional in-person event where candidates were under more pressure to make a good impression.
“I felt like (the virtual forum) was easier because when you’re not talking, you can turn your camera off and go get a drink or a snack,” she said. “But in the normal format you’re stuck on stage with a few hundred people looking at you.”
Like Carroll, Erie’s other two mayoral candidates also already serve in local government or town development. All said their campaigning has taken a back seat to responding to the community’s immediate needs amid COVID-19.
“We have a lot of businesses that have shut down because they’re not essential,” said Barry Luginbill, a mayoral candidate who also serves on the Erie Economic Development Council. “Making sure our businesses have the resources they need is far more important (than the campaign).”
In addition to running for mayor and serving on the council, Luginbill has had to transition his employees at his full-time job to a remote work schedule. His kids are also now home 24/7 because the local schools shut down.
“It’s a lot,” Luginbill said.
Christiaan van Woudenberg, a candidate who currently sits on the town’s Board of Trustees, said as an elected official it felt “almost wrong” to be campaigning amid the public health crisis.
“My job now is to rise to the occasion in my current capacity and do what I can to help the community,” he said. “It feels disingenuous to be out there stumping about open space and trails and economic development. It doesn't ring true.”
The town cancelled all non-essential public business through at least mid-April. The recycling center is closed. Municipal court proceedings are on hold.
Woudenberg said the town’s overwhelming focus on responding to the virus could have an impact on the election’s outcome.
“It’s a complete toss up at this point,” he said. “There are three candidates who are fairly qualified and at the moment it’s very difficult to gauge sentiment of the community from the isolation of your own home.”
In Estes Park, the process of voting and counting ballots has been flipped on its head.
Voters are being asked to mail in their ballots or drop them off at a curbside pickup location outside the town hall.
According to Jackie Williamson, Estes Park’s town clerk, once a driver pulls up, two election judges will walk outside and carry ballots inside the building one at a time.
“We have gloves available for everybody,” Williamson said. “We’re trying to keep that physical distancing from the voters to protect them and to protect us.”
Williamson had to let 10 election judges go because they were old enough to be considered higher-risk COVID-19 patients. Now she’s having to train a staff of new, younger judges who stepped up to help.
“Democracy doesn’t sleep,” she said. “We’re moving forward and we’re doing the best we can to make sure that the voters have their say and their elected officials can continue to operate the town past this period of time.”
On Tuesday, most candidates will be watching results at home with family instead of local breweries and clubhouses. Supporters won’t be able to celebrate or commiserate together.
Charley Dickey, a candidate for Estes Park mayor, said he still hasn’t made a new plan for his election night watch party. He has a lot on his plate.
A businessman who co-owns a local home decor shop, Dickey had to lay off most of his staff after Rocky Mountain National Park closed because of the new coronavirus. Tourists stopped coming. Sales dried up.
“It’s probably going to be a regular day for me,” Dickey said. “I’m talking to our financial advisor about how best to weather this storm.”
Once election results come in, he said he'll likely email his supporters and share a thank you post on Facebook.