But several states that have held primaries in the past few weeks with increased mail voting have struggled. In Georgia on Tuesday, numerous voters said they didn’t receive an absentee ballot after applying for one, sending them into long lines to vote on problematic voting machines. In D.C., Maryland and Rhode Island earlier this month, some voters said they didn’t receive their ballots. In Wisconsin in April, there was a messy, dramatic court fight about how to vote that led to massive confusion about whose ballots would be counted.
So what needs to happen for voting by mail to go right? The Fix talked to Amber McReynolds, the election official who in 2013 set up voting by mail in Colorado. It’s one of five states that was regularly holding elections by mail before the pandemic. McReynolds runs Vote at Home, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for and advising on how to conduct elections via mail.
She said that when vote-by-mail works, it’s because states have followed best practices to keep ballots secure and keep voters informed. Here’s what that looks like for your typical voter in Colorado.
1. Voting in Colorado actually starts at the DMV. When you’re getting a new license, you are automatically registered to vote. In Colorado, you get handed a postcard saying this information will automatically be sent to state election officials to register you to vote.
Advocates for voting by mail say automatic voter registration is one of the most efficient ways to ensure the addresses you have for voters are up to date. Colorado takes it a step further, and election officials get data from the U.S. Post Office at least once a month to update their voter rolls. So if someone moves, they can change that address.
“It’s proven to increase the accuracy of voter registration rolls. The states that do this have the most accurate files in the country,” McReynolds said.
But only about 20 states have automatic voter registration — it can be a partisan issue as Republicans tend to be more skeptical of this practice, saying it could lead to fraud.
So for many states now ramping up mail voting, this isn’t an option. Instead, there’s a debate on whether it’s worth inserting an extra step in the voting process to confirm voters still live at the addresses the state has on file. In Iowa and Michigan, for example, voters are getting an application to vote absentee (which, for our purposes, is the same as vote-by-mail).
But some advocates argue it’s unfair to make people already registered to vote apply to vote. In California, the governor has ordered sending out ballots to all active registered voters.
2. Your ballot is on the way. It’s about a month before the election, and you get an email or text saying your ballot is on the way from your county election office. (Voters at the DMV can choose which kind of alerts they want, with the promise that their information is never shared with campaigns.) Or you can download an app to track your ballot through the Postal Service.
In Colorado, mailing the ballot is a big part of voter outreach for election officials. Instead of mailing notices to people’s home reminding them that an election is coming up and informing them where they can vote, voters simply get a ballot. “For the bulk of people, that ballot is their notice an election is coming,” McReynolds said.
As Colorado switched to vote-by-mail, it implemented the first intelligent ballot-tracking program. Election officials use an intelligent mail bar code that is specific to that voter’s envelope. It allows the voter to track the ballot at every step of the process — where the ballot is on the way to them, where their ballot went after they dropped it off — similar to how you track a package.
McReynolds said it wouldn’t be hard for states to work with the U.S. Postal Service to set this up. And it could help alleviate voter questions about where their ballot is or why they haven’t received it, a common problem in a number of states expanding absentee voting in primaries this summer.
3. The actual voting. About 20 to 30 days before an election, your ballot arrives with instructions on how to fill it out and when it needs to be mailed back and/or dropped off at an official drop-off location in your county by Election Day.
But before you drop off your ballot, you take an important step to confirm it’s you who voted: Sign the back of the envelope. (The instructions will show you where.)
When election officials receive your ballot, they will match your signature with what they have on file from your trip to the DMV. McReynolds said this is the best practice to catch bad actors. It’s very difficult for someone to take a ballot that isn’t theirs and sign it accurately. “If somebody took them and tried to turn it in, it would be caught in the signature verification process,” McReynolds said.
4. Then you send it off. Most counties in Colorado will tell you the exact postage required to mail it back, so you don’t have to guess with the stamps you have on hand. But if you don’t have enough postage, the county covers it. Counties in Colorado also have manned drive-through drop-offs, a popular option, McReynolds said.
5. The counting. States that vote by mail usually take longer to produce the results.
But most states aren’t dropping in-person voting entirely. (Even Colorado has some in-person voting.) Those results come in faster, which could mean that we have a situation in November where there are two sets of results, those from in-person voting on Election Day and then, days or even weeks later, those from voters who mailed in their ballots. Some voting analysts warn this could create confusion and give an opening to bad actors seeking to undermine the results.
To avoid a backlog of ballots coming in at Election Day, Colorado has a program wherein they encourage voters to vote early. When you turn in your ballot, campaigns get notified that you already voted (but not how you voted). And that means the electioneering stops.
McReynolds said the bulk of states allow election officials to start processing the ballots days or weeks in advance. But a few states don’t allow election officials to start until Election Day, “so there ends up being a big backlog.”
6. Transparency. Finally, in many Colorado counties, you can watch election officials process ballots every night. They broadcast the counting on live stream. You could also stop by in person and watch through a window (when a pandemic isn’t going on).
McReynolds said they set it up this way to demonstrate transparency. That is a measure she thinks could be helpful for more states to undertake as they implement a new system of voting.