With the campaign trail upended by the coronavirus outbreak, candidates vying for a spot as La Plata County commissioner are instead taking their message and vision for election to online platforms.
Two seats are up for grabs on the Board of Commissioners: Those occupied by Gwen Lachelt in District 2 (which includes much of Durango) and Julie Westendorff in District 3 (which includes much of eastern La Plata County).
Marsha Porter-Norton, a Democrat, is running against Jack Turner, an unaffiliated candidate, for District 2. And Bayfield Mayor Matt Salka, a Democrat, is facing off against Charly Minkler, an unaffiliated candidate who also serves on the La Plata County Planning Commission, for District 3.
But with strict state orders to limit human interaction, and therefore the spread of the coronavirus, candidates are reaching out to voters in new ways, mainly through social media.
Salka said he is focused on his duties as mayor for the next month until he leaves office. Then, he plans to host meetings through Zoom and Facebook Live to interact with the public.
But he said the outbreak has changed the way a candidate should campaign.
“Right now, we’re supposed to be campaigning and asking for money, but times are rough and people out there don’t have jobs,” he said.
Porter-Norton canceled seven scheduled public events since coronavirus started spreading in the U.S. Now, she said she’s focusing on how county government should best respond and recover from the outbreak.
“I feel like it’s really important to be looking to the future, so if I am elected, we have a very good understanding of what county government functions look like,” she said.
The situation is more complicated for unaffiliated candidates Minkler and Turner.
As part of running without a party, independent candidates must collect around 700 signatures to appear on the ballot, starting in May and ending in July.
But without being able to meet people in person, Turner said that feat won’t be possible. Turner added he has requested the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office change the petition process to allow signatures through online platforms or mail, but said he has not received a satisfactory response.
As of Monday, the state had taken no measures to reform the petition process.
“The thing that’s such a hypocrisy to me is that we can vote and register to vote online, and you can vote by mail,” Turner said. “Why can’t we nominate people that way?”
Minkler did not return a call seeking comment.
La Plata County Clerk & Recorder Tiffany Parker said it is likely the state will have to reform several of its election processes to adapt to the outbreak. Her office also requires a significant amount of time verifying each signature.
“I don’t know the exact solution yet … but we have to have enough time, too, to credential signatures,” she said. “So this is a tough one.”
Requests for comment from the Governor’s Office and Secretary of State’s Office were not immediately returned Monday afternoon.
A spokeswoman with Durango’s League of Women Voters said the organization still hopes to host candidate forums in the coming months, but it will depend on the state of the pandemic whether those events will be in-person or through an online platform.