How Not to Screw Up the Coming Vote-by-Mail Elections

An interview with voting expert Amber McReynolds.

The Washington Monthly has long argued that universal vote by mail, otherwise known as “vote at home,” is the single best way to increase voter turnout. Agree or not, that debate is now beside the point. Under pressure from voters worried about catching the coronavirus at polling places, states and counties across the country are rapidly reworking their electoral systems to enable more citizens to cast ballots by mail.

The question now is whether state and local governments have the capacity to do so without creating administrative nightmares. For answers, the Monthly’s editor in chief Paul Glastris and digital editor Eric Cortellessa spoke to Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit research group that has been advising election officials across the country (Glastris co-founded the organization). McReynolds was previously the director of elections for the city of Denver and is the author of the book When Women Vote.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Last week, the federal government budgeted $400 million to help states cope with the coming elections. How much of that could be used to enable people to vote by mail?

It will depend on how the state decides to use the funds. There are no guardrails around the funds the federal government allocated. So it is really up to each state to utilize that money as they see fit in terms of preparing for the elections amid the pandemic.

So one hundred percent of those funds could go to vote by mail or zero percent to vote by mail?

That’s right.

Is $400 million enough for this challenge?

No. It does not even cover what it would take to print a ballot for every voter in the country.  It barely covers pre-paid postage. It is not enough for equipment or all the other needs that states would have to scale up effectively.

Are you concerned that we’re going to have to do this so quickly that states and counties aren’t going to be able to do it well?

Amber McReynoldsYes. States and local election officials face a choice. They can prepare and scale up and take the necessary steps right now. Or they can try to get by with the way they have always done it, cross their fingers, and hope that they do not run out of envelopes for sending mail ballots, or that they can keep up with the absentee requests, or that their printers can do what they need to at the last minute, or hope that more printers and other equipment they need will be available late in the summer.

So, it’s almost an exact parallel of the coronavirus crisis itself?

It’s exactly that way. You can prepare for the inevitable—and this is inevitable—or you can wait and be caught off guard. Wisconsin went from 120,000 vote-by-mail requests about 12 days ago to more than a million since then. A third of their electorate has chosen that option, within a few weeks of the election. States are being pushed by voters. It’s not even a matter of organizations or legislators deciding how people should vote. Voters are deciding on their own. If states don’t pay very close attention to these trends right now and prepare for what will be a massive increase of mailed-in ballots over the coming months, then they’re going to be caught flat-footed come November.

Are states going to have the capacity to literally count all of these mail in ballots? Do they have enough machines to do the counting?

All machines that count paper ballots count mail ballots, so every state right now has equipment in place that counts absentee ballots. States vary in terms of how much equipment they have in place now and compared to how many paper ballots they process now versus what they may expect to process. So, as an example, if a state is currently primarily paper ballots, then it likely has equipment that can handle an increase in mail ballots with some adjustments. Another factor is if they have equipment that is high-volume central scanning versus precinct-based scanners.

And are there any other states that are just not prepared with the hardware and software to handle the coming tsunami of mailed in ballots?

Yeah, New York is not used to very many mail ballots. That is true of a lot of the East Coast states. This is a major shift and they will need more and/or different equipment.

Are we going to see the same bottlenecks with vote-counting machines that we’re seeing with ventilators?

We could. That’s why I’ve been saying that states need to act by April 15.

So if states wait till May or June or July to order equipment and everything they need for November, they might wind up without that equipment?

Yeah, it will be too late. If they try to wait out the pandemic, then they are going to be in a very difficult situation.

Is there a state that has an upcoming primary that you think is most likely going to run into problems? And what are those problems?

I think Wisconsin is the most obvious. Their primary is on April 7. As of yesterday morning, they had more than 100 polling places that did not have election workers. They had literally no poll workers because they all dropped out and they had to ask the National Guard to support them in running the polling places. [Since the interview, Wisconsin’s governor has called the state legislature into a special session to move toward an all-mail election, with a deadline of May 26 to return ballots.]

I think Ohio is going to continue to have problems because instead of pushing the election out further, the legislature mandated that it happen on April 28. They say they want to do mostly vote by mail but they are making voters sign up to get the ballot instead of mailing it to them automatically and they are also not sending the mail-in application to everyone and instead a postcard explaining how to get an application.  So this is a three-step process. This is pretty inefficient, and I think it will create problems for them.

Which states are preparing themselves better?

Many of the California counties have already ordered equipment, they have started to scale up, they know what’s coming, they are working on processes, they are working out how to do things in a more effective way. The state has coordinated working groups that include election officials, advocacy organizations, researchers, academics, and other groups. California stands out because they are being proactive. In Arizona, the secretary of state has called for the ability to mail a ballot to every voter. Arizona is already near 80 percent vote by mail, so it is an obvious transition point for them.

Other states are being proactive because of the ways they are adjusting their upcoming primary processes. Maryland is a good example. They have been working on a plan to enact a vote-at-home election for June and also switched to vote by mail for their upcoming congressional special election. The Georgia secretary of state’s office has been proactive in how they are thinking about adjustments. They have decided to mail every voter an absentee application, which is going to cost about $10 million. Frankly, it would cost just slightly more to mail a ballot to every voter. I think that would have been more efficient, but that is not the choice they made. I have spent a lot of time talking to officials in Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois. Nevada has taken some proactive steps; they are going to mail a ballot to every elector in their upcoming primary.

The way vote-by-mail systems validate whether ballots are legit is by checking the signatures on the ballots and envelopes that voters mail in. Are states prepared to do that on a mass scale quickly?

The way to reduce the risk of in-person voting is to send everyone a mail ballot.

Most of the western states that have used vote by mail extensively approach signature verification by creating standards and requiring training of all officials. That creates consistency across the state. There are key considerations for signature verification. The first is making sure that there is a comparative signature on file. That means that states have to start analyzing whether they have signatures on file for every voter and how to fill gaps if needed. If not, it is important to reach out to voters now. Hawaii actually just sent a mailer to all of their voters, asking them to update their signature. The other action that states can take is to pull signatures from their motor vehicle systems.

Are those DMV signatures digitized and can states pull them in a matter of weeks?

A lot of it is digitized. It depends on each state system, but it is one of the issues that needs to be worked on now.

So, if you get a ballot in the mail and you fill it out and mail it back, how do you know if the ballot got counted?

There is a ballot tracking tool. It is the same as tracking a FedEx package or UPS package or USPS package. It enables you to track your ballot throughout the process. Denver was the first creator of this system back in 2009. It uses the intelligent mail barcode on each envelop and it lets you track the mail ballot. Thus, voters are confident their ballot has been received and processed for counting. Similarly, if there is an issue with the ballot, they will receive notification.

Can states and counties get that software up and running in just a few weeks?

It depends, but there are available platforms. One of our partners, Democracy Works, has a tool called Ballot Scout that’s now being used in a lot of different jurisdictions and states across the country. Virginia actually has Ballot Scout, as well as a couple jurisdictions in Florida.

Let’s say you fill out your ballot, you mail it in and track it. It goes into the system, and you’re told, Hey, your ballot didn’t work out. What happens then?

It varies by state, but the recommended practice is that you have what’s called a “signature cure” process. And what that means is, whatever the issue is, you have a cure process, where you notify the voter immediately. The voter will get a text or an email right away.

For election officials, there is an application called Text to Cure that Denver and a lot of other jurisdictions use. It allows you to rectify any problems via text message. You literally can sign the affidavit on your phone, and then take a copy of your state-certified ID and text it in. There is no paperwork required; it is just a texting process that goes directly to the election official.

So you literally use your phone, take a picture of your driver’s license, and text it in?

Yeah, and you sign the affidavit on your phone.

What about postage? Many young people have never mailed anything, and most voters aren’t eager to go to the grocery store or find a place to get stamps. It seems like that could be a real barrier.

That’s part of the reason why we are recommending prepaid postage. If you just eliminate that and take it off the table, it just makes the process less confusing for everybody.

Are there going to be problems for states and counties just in terms of printing envelopes and making sure people know what the heck that piece of mail is?

Clear, user friendly design is important. The Center for Civic design is one of our key partners. They have a toolkit that includes recommendations on envelope design, working with the post office, instructional design, all of those things.

Imagine I’m an independent voter in one of the primaries coming up, and I have the right to vote in a party primary. In some of these states, it’s the party running the primaries, not the secretary of state. How would I get a ballot?

Every state varies on this front. Colorado, for instance, mails every registered voter a ballot for the presidential primary, but independent voters receive both ballots, they are mailed to them, and then they have to choose which one they want to use.

So what is the process by which elections officials can start making these changes?

There are advocacy groups that want to get the laws changed. But, many state legislatures are not in session! We are beyond that. So, if state legislatures are closing and not taking action, the only way left to address emergency situations is to assess what level of emergency authority the governors have to make changes to election policies.

Which governors have that authority to do that on their own?

Governors in about 35 states have authority to amend and create statutes and regulations.

In Maryland, the State Board of Elections was going to recommend an all-mail election with no polling places at all to avoid contagion, but advocacy groups and the Maryland Attorney General’s office objected that, without access to polling places, voters with disabilities would be disenfranchised. How do you address those concerns?

I think there has to be some level of in-person voting and my recommendation is a vote-center style. I do not agree that you can have an election entirely by mail. That said, an MIT study found that Colorado, Washington and Oregon, the traditional vote-by-mail states, have the smallest gap in turnout among voters with disabilities. The most difficult challenge for people with disabilities is transportation to the polling place. So I disagree that moving to more voting by mail is going to disenfranchise people.

What needs to be done for voting on Indian reservations?

The reservations vary in terms of how the mail delivery happens. We had to work some of that out in Colorado. Offering an in-person option is important. Another solution is to have mobile voting units; it’s like a trailer that provides a pop-up vote center. And you can move it around during the early voting period to lots of different locations.

Are there ways to make existing polling places safe and not vectors of transmission that will lead to the spreading of the disease?

Yeah, the way to reduce the risk of in-person voting, ironically, is to send everyone a mail ballot. That way you are ultimately reducing the number of people who will go into a voting location. In Denver’s recent primary, the traffic wasn’t as heavy in the vote centers because everyone got a ballot at home, so poll workers could legitimately do social distancing. The booths were spread farther apart, the lines were managed so they had six feet of space between people, poll workers were wearing gloves and using hand sanitizer. They handed out sanitized pens, and so on. If the traffic to the vote centers is low, it is less of a problem finding enough poll workers to staff them.

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Paul Glastris and Eric Cortellessa

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. Eric Cortellessa is the digital editor of the magazine.