In 2013, Colorado lawmakers moved elections from the ballot box to the mailbox, under a mix of optimism around more voter access and dire predictions about security and accountability.
Now, under the cloud of coronavirus, remote voting is getting a fresh look nationwide, as states face postponements and worries over spreading the illness among voters and poll workers.
So far, 11 states or cities have contacted the Colorado Secretary of State's Office looking for advice, but a Secretary of State's spokesman wouldn't disclose who, citing privacy.
“Mail-in ballots help maintain that crucial access, and it’s time that every state in this nation offer mail-in ballots to voters," Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in a statement provided to Colorado Politics.
"Over the last week, my office has worked with states interested in implementing or expanding mail-in ballot voting. Since Colorado adopted in 2013 an election model that includes both mail-in ballots and in-person voting, we have increased engagement of voters throughout the state.
"In fact, it has made us a national leader in voter participation. Every eligible American deserves to have their voice heard and vote counted. Not only is it feasible for states to implement mail-in ballots before the 2020 General Election, it is now their moral duty."
Colorado enjoys among the highest voter turnout rates in the country each election and was recognized by The Washington Post as "the safest state to cast a vote" under former Secretary of State Wayne Williams two years ago.
Williams said Thursday it's doable, but perhaps not affordable or even advisable for states to follow Colorado's years-old evolution in a matter of weeks.
"As states consider changes in their election procedures, they need to ensure the safety of their voters and election workers as well as ensuring the integrity of the process," he told Colorado Politics. "That includes assessing whether they can obtain and adequately test equipment and computer programs before the election and verify the results afterwards."
Colorado evolved into the model over a decade or more, which gave voters a level of comfort that states where there has been resistance won't have. Colorado first permitted people to vote absentee for any reason, then it allowed Coloradans to opt to vote by mail, well before the major switch via the legislature in 2013.
In the last presidential election, 71.3% of Colorado voters cast ballots, while the national average was 58.2%. The Secretary of State's Office said that of the 2.8 million ballots cast in the state, 2.6 million were cast by mail, as the state maintains the in-person option.
Other places must realize, however, that Colorado didn't get there overnight, and the November vote is less than eight months away.
“Rolling something as complex as this out at large-scale introduces thousands of small problems — some of which are security problems, some of which are reliability problems, some of which are resource-management problems — that only become apparent when you do it,” Matt Blaze, an election security expert and computer science professor at Georgetown Law School, told Politico this week. “Which is why changing anything right before a high-stakes election carries risks.”
Voters are concerned, but so are those who might have to serve them at polling places. A lack of poll workers would only exacerbate the voting system in an election year in which integrity and bias could be called into question, regardless.
Absentee voting is getting a closer look now in states that previously gave it little attention, beyond a necessary component of the system, the way Colorado once handed it.
Alabama, for instance, was preparing for a March 31 runoff for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, pitting former senator and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, until this week.
Alabama had a record primary turnout, 33%, on Super Tuesday this month, a day when the Yellowhammer State had tornadoes but no confirmed cases of the virus.
In a press release about coronavirus and voting last week, the Alabama Secretary of State's Office noted "several members of the Legislature have attempted year after year to pass legislation allowing for no-excuse absentee voting and early voting – both of which have failed every time."
Grace Newcombe, a spokeswoman for the Alabama secretary of state, said in an email Friday the office isn't pushing any legislation related to absentee or in-person voting at this time. She wouldn't elaborate on any lessons learned from other states, including Colorado.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, however, invoked a Colorado-style solution.
"Right now, everyone’s top priority should be to stop the spread of the virus and keep folks safe at home, and that includes allowing Alabamians to vote absentee and vote by mail," Jones said in a statement. "It’s crucial that we expand access to the ballot box, enact early voting and expand opportunities to vote by mail in Alabama so that all eligible voters are able to participate in our democracy.”
That sounds a lot like Colorado in 2013.