The debacle that was the Wisconsin primary election is but the latest evidence that America’s voting laws are broken. Only time will tell the impact of forcing tens of thousands of voters to cast their ballots in-person amid a global pandemic. This event should serve as a call-to-arms to permanently adopt universal mail-in voting nationwide. As the United States faces the most dramatic and costly public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu, the time has come to rethink the way Americans live, work, and especially, vote.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, far too many people have been disenfranchised by the difficulty and expense of registering to vote, then actually traveling to cast a ballot in-person on election day. For the working poor, college students, stay at home parents, residents of rural communities, and people who don’t own a car, to name just a few, the challenge of getting to a not always nearby polling place and standing in an often hours-long line is an insurmountable burden. The country’s patchwork of registration and voter-ID laws adds an extra layer of confusion and intimidation efforts keep far too many immigrant and minority voters from going to the polls or registering to vote in the first place.
There is a better way. Five states — Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii — have already moved to all mail-in voting, sometimes called postal voting, for all elections. 21 more states authorize certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. It is time for the federal government to follow the path laid out by these trailblazers and implement all mail-in voting across the country.
In all-mail voting, every registered voter is automatically mailed a ballot before the election. Think of it like no-excuse absentee voting for everyone. In Colorado, described as the “gold standard” for postal voting, county clerks begin mailing ballots three weeks prior to election day. Voters have from the time they receive their ballot until the last day of the election to make their selections and return their ballot by mail, dropping it off at a polling site, or using a 24-hour drop-box located in their county. Voters may also vote in-person beginning 15 days before the close of polls.
Based on the states where it is already in place, voting by mail has been shown to be secure and trustworthy. Colorado voters are required to provide a copy of their signature when they first register to vote. Later, when they sign and return their ballot, that signature is compared with the one on file to verify their identity. This match is generally completed electronically, but if necessary, a bipartisan team of trained election workers will evaluate the signatures. If the signature match still cannot be authenticated, the voter is contacted and given an opportunity to go to their clerk’s office in person to “cure” their ballot and ensure that it is counted. In some counties, voters can also sign up to receive text messages when their ballot is mailed to them, when it is received back by the clerk, and when it has been processed, a system which all but eliminates the opportunity for ballot theft.
By providing a hardcopy trail of a voter’s choices, mail-in ballots actually provide greater election security than the electronic voting used in some parts of the country. In case of a recount or investigation into election fraud, the physical ballots are available for inspection. Thanks to this rigorous process, election fraud in Colorado is virtually non-existent. Since moving to all mail-in ballots in 2013, the state has recorded fewer than fifty cases of improper voting, more often caused by mistake than malice, out of more than 13.5 million votes cast. Even the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation has documented only nine instances of election fraud prosecutions across Colorado over the past seven years. These numbers are consistent across the states which use all mail-in voting. In 2016, both Washington and Oregon flagged fewer than .002% of votes as suspicious.
Not only has Colorado demonstrated the safety of all mail-in voting, but it has also shown it to save tax dollars as well. Because of all mail-in voting, elections in Colorado are now 40% cheaper than traditional in-person voting. In 2014 general election, the first major statewide election with all mail-in voting, the average cost-per-vote for counties was $9.56, compared with just under $16 in 2008. These savings come from needing to hire fewer poll workers and renting fewer polling sites. Even when prepaid return postage is provided to voters, the cost savings for taxpayers remains substantial.
Mail-in voting also gives voters the maximum flexibility in when and how they want to cast their ballots. While early voting and additional polling locations are good, they still require voters to travel to a specific location at a certain time to cast a ballot. With postal voting, a voter can fill out their ballot from the comfort of their own home. Or a coffee shop. Or a bus on the way to work. COVID-19 is but the most recent example of the importance of this flexibility. For voters who travel frequently, go to school out of state, or work nightshift jobs, traditional in-person voting is tantamount to a denial of the right to vote. Evidence backs this up: states which have adopted all mail-in voting have seen a surge in turnout, particularly among “low-propensity” voters who are historically the least likely to turn in a ballot.
Thanks to the United State’s decentralized approach to voting, with each state retaining a high degree of autonomy in how they run their elections, implementing nationwide all mail-in voting will be no easy feat. But that hardly makes it impossible. Previous federal legislation protecting the right to vote, such as the Voting Rights Act and the Help America Vote Act offer a roadmap for the way forward. These laws can serve as a useful starting point for federally mandated all mail-in voting. Alternatively, the federal government can include funding and expertise encouraging states to voluntarily implement postal voting in future disaster recovery packages.
Supporters of postal voting can also count on the growing chorus of elections officials from states which have implemented it to dispel some of the myths being pushed by opponents. Emphasizing the cost-savings, in particular, has proven useful to achieve broad bipartisan support for all mail-in voting in the states that have thus far switched to it. Even without a federal mandate, the crisis of COVID-19 suggests that additional states will likely turn to all mail-in voting for primaries and the November general election, increasing voters’ and election officials’ familiarity with postal voting.
From its earliest days, Colorado has been a leader when it comes to ballot access. The right to vote has been protected by its Constitution since statehood. In 1893, it became the first state to extend suffrage to woman via referendum and, the very next year, it was the first state to elect a woman (actually three women) to the state legislature. Colorado was among of the first states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote when applying for a driver-license, adopting a “motor-voter” law almost a decade before the National Voter Registration Act required them nationwide. Today, Colorado continues to be on the forefront of voting reform with universal mail-in voting for all elections, automatic voter registration, and expanded options for disabled voters. The past seven years, with one Presidential election, two Congressional elections, and countless primaries and local elections, have shown voting by mail to be an unmitigated success in the state. Not only is all mail-in voting less expensive and more secure, but it also makes it easier for all citizens to exercise our most fundamental right: the right to elect our leaders and shape our government. It is time for the rest of the nation to follow the Centennial State and allow everyone to vote from the comfort, and safety, of home.
Nicholas Monck is a Denver, Colorado based election law and voting rights attorney. He served as the Deputy Director for Voter Protection for the Colorado Democratic Party in 2018 and Boulder County Democratic Party Legal Team Co-Lead from 2017–2019.