The election of a new 18th Judicial District Attorney was a race to watch before polls closed Nov. 3.
Then 7 p.m. on Election Day hit. Early returns rolled out. Periodic updates followed. With each new batch of results, the race remained too close to call. Democrat Amy Padden held a narrow lead until Nov. 5, when her opponent Republican John Kellner emerged with his first — but still narrow — lead.
By Nov. 6, Kellner maintained and slightly grew that lead to 50.14% of the 569,553 ballots counted. Padden trailed at 49.86%. The margin was 1,551 votes in a race that had nearly 570,000 votes counted as of Nov. 6.
Thousands of ballots remained uncounted three days after Election Night. Military and overseas ballots will trickle in until Nov. 12. And counties are still asking voters to cure ballots that could not immediately be processed, such as when a voter’s signature on a ballot envelope does not match the signature on file at the county clerk’s office.
A spokesman for Arapahoe County said as of Nov. 6, the county had asked 6,000 voters to cure ballots, although all other mail-in and in-person ballots were processed. There were 1,066 ballot envelopes still needing cured in Douglas County and 300 mail-in ballots were still being processed, a spokeswoman for Douglas County said.
Reached by phone on Nov. 5, Kellner said he was excited to see so many people interested in the criminal justice system. He was optimistic about his lead but waiting for every vote to be counted, he said, something he called crucial to ensuring voters’ voices are heard.
The race so far has “been a rollercoaster,” Kellner said. “I’m very fortunate to have some great supporters and familly to share this experience with.”
Padden on Nov. 6 said she would be keeping a close eye on how overseas, military and cured ballots would affect the final count.
“It’s still a very tight race,” Padden said. “There are still votes coming in and there are more votes coming in than the margin right now, so it is critically important that everybody’s vote gets counted.”
Like Kellner, Padden said she was grateful for the amount of interest in the race.
“People were paying attention to this race in a way that people had not paid attention to district attorney races in the past,” she said.
Padden believes high-profile tragedies like the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor galvanized a new interest in systemic racism that likely affected interest in the local district attorney election as well.
“People were paying more attention to the inequities that we have in our criminal justice system as well as the power that a district attorney has,” she said.
Padden and Kellner — two prosecutors with lengthy resumes in the criminal justice system — are squaring off to replace term-limited 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler. The Republican district attorney has held the post for eight years and ran unopposed in 2016.
The district comprises Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties and is Colorado’s most populous. The 2020 winner will assume office in January.
At the county level, Kellner held strong leads in three of the district’s counties: Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln. Meanwhile, Padden had garnered a high percentage of votes in Arapahoe county.
Kellner, of Greenwood Village, currently serves as chief deputy district attorney in the 18th, supervising the district’s prosecutions in Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. Brauchler brought Kellner in to help found the district’s cold case unit, an area Kellner has specialized in.
Padden, of Aurora, began her career in private practice before moving on to work as a prosecutor for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Today, she works as a prosecutor in the 11th Judicial District. She promised a reform-minded approach to the job, aiming to bring down recidivism rates and boost diversion programs.
The winner of this election will be the last district attorney to lead the 18th Judicial District as it operates today, after the state Legislature this year passed a bill to split up the fast-growing district into two after this district attorney’s term.