At least 67 Wisconsin voters and poll workers contracted COVID-19 after participating in that state’s in-person primary election last month. Still, many Republicans from President Donald Trump on down are resisting the idea of conducting November’s election via mail-in ballot — mainly on the grounds that the results would be vulnerable to election fraud.
Colorado’s experience shows that vote by mail can be at least as secure as in-person voting while increasing turnout.
The coronavirus pandemic has raised the question of whether to implement universal, all-mail voting in the 45 states that don’t already have it. Of those states, 36 already provide no-excuse absentee ballots, but voters have to ask for them. As the virus spread through primary season, states delayed elections entirely or became entangled in legal battles and confusion. The issue is growing more urgent as states look ahead to November’s presidential election without a clear idea of how widespread the coronavirus will be then.
“What the pandemic has exposed is the significant vulnerabilities and risks with most states reliant on in-person voting as the primary method of voting,” Amber McReynolds, chief executive officer of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition, said.
McReynolds, a former Denver elections director, helped design Colorado’s vote-by-mail system, which is often referred to as the gold standard.
By early April, a third of states had contacted Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold for advice as they tried to build their own systems before the November election. By the second week in May, election officials in all 50 states were on calls with each other about the possibility of all-mail elections. The National Vote at Home Institute rolled out a 50-state analysis and plan to expand vote-at-home policies. Griswold, a Democrat, has advocated for expanding Colorado’s system across all 50 states so every eligible voter can cast a vote during the pandemic.
Still, partisanship and misinformation may prevent many states from making changes.
Popular with voters
Colorado followed Oregon and Washington state in adopting all-mail ballot elections, holding the first one in 2014. The state continues to see record turnout, according to the secretary of state’s office. In 2018, Colorado had the second highest turnout rate in the country. The switch to all-mail ballots yielded a 9.4% increase in overall turnout among registered voters for the state, even when other states were seeing a decline in rates between 2010 and 2014, according to a study by a group of university political scientists released this month. The most significant increase was among younger voters.
Nationwide, the majority of voters across the political spectrum are in favor of remote voting. An April poll from Reuters/Ipsos found that 79% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans supported giving all voters mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election.
The spread of the highly contagious coronavirus has cemented voters’ interest in that approach. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in March, a majority of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable voting in person in the presidential primaries during the pandemic.
Still, Republicans are fighting the expansion of all-mail elections across the country, while Democrats are in favor of it. The Republican National Committee and Trump’s re-election campaign have budgeted $20 million to fight Democrats’ changes to voting rules in battleground states.
The GOP’s chief argument is that voting by mail is less secure.
“It’s subject to tremendous corruption — cheating,” Trump told reporters during a White House meeting May 13 with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
But one of Trump’s own appointees is among the many who have lauded Colorado as having among the most secure elections in the country. In the 2018 election, Colorado forwarded only 0.0027% out of 2.5 million ballots for fraud investigation, Griswold said.
“We’d love to continue to use you as an example of what other states can adopt,” then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a training in Denver in 2018.
Many Colorado Republicans such as former Secretary of State Wayne Williams are also advocates of mail voting, though Republicans opposed the effort in 2013. Paper ballots, signature verifications, a risk-limiting audit and voter list checks make it safe, supporters say.
Republicans elsewhere also believe mail-in ballots would increase the number of Democratic voters. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston last month said he agreed with the president that an increase in absentee ballots would be “devastating to Republicans.”
“Every registered voter is going to get one of these,” Ralston said. “Now I ask you … what was turnout in the primary back in 2018 or 2016. Was it 100%? No. No. It’s way, way, way lower. This will certainly drive up turnout.”
Colorado’s increase in turnout, however, hasn’t benefited one party over another, according to the research paper released this month. The increased turnout in 2014 for both parties was almost identical. Independent voter participation, however, increased the most. That year, Republican Cory Gardner unseated then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, and Republicans won three of four other state seats.
The GOP in other states such as Florida also has relied on mail ballots as a key tool in winning their elections.
Despite that success, Gardner has said in media interviews that he opposes efforts by congressional Democrats to help states adopt all-mail voting because states should decide how to run their own elections.
States without all-mail ballots have rules allowing voters to request absentee ballots in some circumstances, but the reasons allowed vary by state. In Texas, the Republican attorney general is seeking to force counties to reject absentee ballots that are requested solely because of the voter’s fear of catching the coronavirus.
“What’s interesting is in every single state voters have the option to request a ballot by mail, what we’re seeing right now is an inevitable huge increase in voters doing that,” McReynolds said.
That’s evidenced in states like Georgia, Wisconsin and Ohio that have had hundreds of thousands of additional absentee ballot requests, she said.
“Voters are the ones asking for this,” McReynolds said. “It’s not up to the policy makers to decide how many there will be.”
Running out of time
Moving all states to a full vote-by-mail system couldn’t happen overnight even if with bipartisan support for the idea.
Some states have constitutional provisions about how balloting should take place, and there’s the issue of vendor supply. Ballot printers have warned that states need to decide soon if they want to have enough mail ballots ready for the election. It will also take time to updated processes and databases and train election workers.
“Even in Colorado, we phased this in over more than a decade, and even last year, we made additional tweaks in the process to make it better,” Williams said.
But Griswold and Williams believe Colorado’s system can serve as a model for others.
Williams favors a mixed approach that expands the option to get absentee mail ballots while offering in-person voting that abides by social distancing guidelines.
Griswold is advocating for Congress to act to help states get the resources they need.
“We’re just really wanting to help states think about what they need to do to quickly to expand vote by mail … The last thing any of us want to see is the pandemic used as a way to suppress voter turnout in November,” Griswold said.