Colorado mails ballots to voters.
Colorado has the most secure elections in the nation.
Shouldn’t those two facts mean something as the nation grapples with how democracy will function in the middle of a pandemic?
Come June and November, Colorado will cast ballots in the only way that doesn’t put voters’ health at risk. If COVID-19 is still making the rounds by the general election, voters in a significant swath of the nation will face a tough choice: go the polls and risk infection or sit out the election. Unless the vote-by-mail concept gains widespread acceptance quickly, which doesn’t seem to be happening.
The debate over whether more Americans should cast their votes through the mail is unfolding along bitterly partisan lines, the Associated Press reported in Wednesday’s Sentinel. It’s provoking the kind of vitriol that could undermine the results, even if there are no major problems.
That hurdle — getting Americans to agree that vote-by-mail is OK and not some Democratic conspiracy to tilt elections in their favor — is difficult enough. But standing up new election procedures to allow for mail balloting would have to begin now for some states to have any chance of pulling them off.
All we can say is that Colorado’s system has worked well — excluding an embarrassing (and hopefully, isolated) incident in which a certain county clerk failed to collect ballots from a secure drop-off location.
Long before the coronavirus emerged as an electoral factor, election security has been a hot topic. Back in September 2018, a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen, singled out Colorado for its rigorous use of risk-limiting audits and other election safeguards.
“We’d love to continue to use you as an example of what other states can adopt,” she said as part of a cyber-security and disaster exercise in Denver.
Casting ballot by mail is a curiously “Western” tradition. Five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — conduct elections almost entirely by mail. Washington, Oregon and Colorado have already moved over to 100% mail or drop-off voting, with California headed in that direction.
There are benefits to mailing ballots, beyond convenience and health. Colorado’s voter turnout is among the best in the country. Mail ballots can also reduce costs of staging an election. As the New York Times reported last month: “States with all-mail voting eliminate the cost of staffing and equipping most polling places ... Printing costs can actually drop because stacks of spare ballots no longer have to be printed to prepare for unexpectedly high turnouts. In fact, one study of the switch to all-mail voting in Colorado concluded that major expenses fell by 40 percent, to about $10 per voter from $16.”
Of course, vote by mail is contingent upon having a fully functional U.S. Postal Service, which is ailing at the moment. But that’s an editorial for another day.
The bottom line is that Colorado and other Western states have already made a strong case that vote-at-home processes work. The pandemic has now framed them as vital to the nation’s democracy.