Colorado Edition: Vote By Mail
Today on a special episode of Colorado Edition: we've teamed up with 1A Across America for a series exploring election issues leading up to November. Today we look at how we vote. Here in Colorado, all registered voters receive ballots in the mail. We learn more about how that process works, and why it’s been a subject of national debate recently.
- Amber McReynolds - Chief Executive Officer, The National Vote At Home Institute
- Robert Helmig - President, Colorado’s Postal Workers Union
- Jena Griswold - Colorado’s Secretary of State
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What would a pandemic-proof election look like?
Amber McReynolds: I think I think it very much resembles Colorado, actually. There's certainly still some things that we can do in Colorado; there's been some additional steps that I've recommended over time that we can take to continue to make sure every Coloradan has an independent, accessible voting experience. That includes accessible options at home, and so I think that's kind of another next step in Denver. We did a lot of piloting of different technology on that front, and I think that's something Colorado can continue to improve on it.
But you know, a pandemic-resistant election ensures that every voter has access to a safe and secure, accessible voting process. Colorado proactively mails ballots, you don't have to sign up for them. It's more efficient – it goes out to you. You can return through the mail, or you can drop it off in-person, or you can go vote in-person.
So you really have all options in front of you. It's safer and it's not as reliant as what a lot of states are on that one day, in small spaces, with a ton of people required to service that system, including the fact that the average age of poll workers is usually around 70 in most states, right?
Many people – especially those who’ve lived in Colorado where we have voted by mail for a while – are wondering why this has become a partisan issue. Is there any evidence that mail-in voting makes voter fraud easier or more likely?
McReynolds: No, there's no evidence of that. Voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Most of the stories that we see pop up in elections tend to be about election fraud, so a bad actor doing something to a voter or trying to interfere with the voting process in some way. And that is much more likely to occur than individual voters trying to do something wrong. And part of the reason for that is it comes with stiff penalties — it's not a small crime to try to do this, and so the incentive is just not there for this sort of thing to happen.
And then, with any system, it's really critical that we're able to deter, detect, and then hold bad actors accountable. We've created a lot of those methods in the Colorado model, including signature verification or some of the other processes, like ballot tracking, that we first created here in Denver, Colorado 11 years ago. Those systems are all designed to be able to deter and detect bad actors that try to interfere with the process, and then that enables us to hold folks accountable.
One impact of the recent discourse around elections is a sense of doubt that some voters may be feeling when they go to cast a ballot. How important is trust in an election? And do you feel that Americans trust the current system?
McReynolds: I think trust is absolutely critical, and I think that when we see partisan politicians spreading misinformation that puts fear into voters' minds, or confuses the voting public — those are the sorts of things that are not helpful in terms of increasing trust. And the fact is, trust in government, trust in Congress, trust in elected officials is at an all-time low. We've seen this happen across the country.
I think one of the most critical ways to solve that is to streamline the voting process. Because if voters have to wait in line for six hours just to cast a ballot, they're probably not going to trust their government, or the folks that are delivering that election to them. Whereas if we offer a good voting experience (and) streamline the process, trust in the institutions of government is going to increase because people have access and they're not struggling just to cast a ballot.
So they're all intricately tied together. And this is why I'm such an advocate for designing the right systems and ensuring that the voters have a great experience.
Last month the postal service told most states, including Colorado, that it couldn’t guarantee ballots would all be returned in time to be counted for the election.
This warning came as the agency was facing an overhaul prompted by the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, amid a distressing financial outlook. The agency has since said those changes would be on hold until after the election.
Do you have any concerns? Are you confident that Colorado’s postal service can handle the expected increase in ballots this November?
Robert Helmig: I do have confidence and faith in my fellow postal workers to get the job done, to get those ballots delivered in a timely fashion from county commissioners to the customer.
But just like anything else, especially around crunch time, like Christmas for example, if you wait until Christmas Eve to mail a package, don’t expect it to get there Christmas Day. The same thing with the ballot, if you wait until the last minute, it probably won’t make it there on time.
That’s why most are suggesting, and I would recommend, that at least a week before the ballots are due, you put the appropriate postage on there, drop it in the mail, and I have the utmost faith that it would get there on time.
We’ve talked about a couple of the changes the new postmaster general has installed and then halted. How are you feeling those here in Colorado, and have you noticed a backlog at all because of some of those changes?
Helmig: We have seen some backlog, mostly at the plant. Once it gets to the station, mail that gets to the station, it does get delivered in a timely fashion.
Your local neighborhood post office, they seem to be on top of things, and getting the mail out as quickly as possible.
At the plants, there's a little bit of a backlog for numerous different reasons, but during this time of the season I think that’s kind of to be expected as we anticipate more and more volume for the election and then for Christmas.
Speaking from a postal service perspective, what do you want Coloradans to know about voting this year?
Helmig: A few things I’d like to remind our customers and our families and friends that utilize the postal service:
One, when you get your ballot, make your decisions fairly quickly, and then return that ballot as quickly as you can, give it about at least a week once you drop it in the mail to your county commissioner. Make sure you put the appropriate postage on there. That’s important.
And then, if there are doubts — I’m a realist, I understand there are some people who out there who have doubts — please use the dropboxes that are across the state. Those are safe and secure as well.
When will the voting ballots be mailed to registered voters?
Jena Griswold: Ballots will start going out the week of Oct. 9th through the 16th. That’s a Friday to a Friday, and counties will get them out the door to Colorado voters during that time period.
Are there other deadlines around this election, some other key dates we should be writing down on our calendars?
Griswold: In-person early voting will start on Oct. 19. The last day to return a ballot by mail is Oct. 26. After that day, Coloradans need to return their mail ballots to one of the hundreds of drop boxes we have across the state or an in-person voting location. And of course the big day is Nov. 3.
And just a reminder that if you are not registered to vote, and you don’t register before Election Day, which we want you to do, but if you don’t, you can always go register and cast your ballot right on Election Day, Nov. 3.
You mentioned drop boxes — a number of listeners wrote in saying that drop boxes are your preferred way of turning in ballots. How does that work? What security is in place around drop boxes?
Griswold: Drop boxes are a key feature of the Colorado election model. We have hundreds across the state, and I’m really happy that as Secretary of State I’ve increased the number of drop boxes by 49%.
So for the upcoming election, we’ll have over 368 drop boxes. They’re safe, they’re secure, and Coloradans love to use them.
A little bit background on drop boxes: they’re bolted to the ground, they’re monitored 24 hours a day on camera, we have lighting requirements, and we keep all of that footage for 25 months. And how the ballots are collected is by a bi-partisan team of election judges that keep a chain of custody on all the ballots.
So actually, to share with you, depending on the election, about 75% of mail ballots are actually returned to drop boxes, so we’re just so happy to increase access this year because we are expecting a lot of Coloradans to vote and have their voice heard.
What should we do to make sure our ballots are counted and they’re not thrown out? Are there best practices that we as voters can do?
Griswold: Well, first off, I would say Colorado has a very low rejection rate as compared to other states, but there are things that you can do to make sure your voice is heard.
The first one is registering to vote. So please go register to vote at govotecolorado.gov. That website also has information about your nearest drop box, and in-person voting location. And we really encourage listeners to make sure that their address is up to date, because we want to make sure that ballot arrives to you.
Besides that, we really encourage early voting, that helps county clerks administer and process the ballots. Everybody gets very excited about results on Election Night, but if there are too many ballots coming in on Election Day, it’s hard to report all the turnout and the results on Election Night.
So we encourage making sure your registration is up to date, that you vote early, and use one of those many drop boxes we have across the state to return that ballot. One of the key things that Coloradans can do is to make a plan how to vote right now. Think about how you’re going to vote, how you’re going to return to that ballot.
I just think we’re going to set a record turnout, hopefully again. We always lead the nation in turnout. And I told Minnesota -- we’re always number one or they’re always number one and vice versa -- that this is our year. So I’m relying on Coloradans to get those ballots in and have their voices heard in this historic election.
Next week: Colorado is said to be a purple state. Are you an independent voter, not affiliated with any political party? Why is that? What are your thoughts on joining a political party?
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Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs.
Colorado Edition is hosted by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1) and Henry Zimmerman, and produced by Lily Tyson. The web was edited by digital editor Jackie Hai. KUNC news director Brian Larson is our executive producer. We get production help from Rae Solomon.
And special thanks to 1A’s Amanda Williams.
KUNC's Colorado Edition is a news magazine taking an in-depth look at the issues and culture of Northern Colorado. It's available on our website, as well as on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear the show on KUNC's air, Monday through Thursday at 6:30 p.m., with a rebroadcast of the previous evening's show Tuesday through Friday at 8:30 a.m.
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