The District of Columbia’s June 2020 primary was nothing short of a disaster. To minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, the city abandoned its plan to hold an election the old-fashioned way. It shuttered most of its polling locations, keeping open just 20 full-service vote centers, open to any voter, rather than the 143 precinct-based centers normally in use, and sent every registered eligible voter an application to request an absentee ballot. 

This left huge jams at vote centers, with long lines snaking around sidewalks, forcing some voters to wait more than four hours to cast ballots. While more than 90,000 voters—out of the city’s roughly 410,000 registered voters—requested absentee ballots, hundreds reported never receiving them. At a conference the day after the election, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser called the event “nothing short of failed execution.” 

Something had to change.

Learning from their mistakes, D.C. election officials took a different tack for the November general election. This time, they mailed every registered eligible voter a postage-paid ballot, rather than an application to vote absentee; opened up more vote centers; and peppered ballot drop boxes across the city. The approach proved highly successful: Citywide turnout was 66.9 percent—up from 65.3 percent in 2016 and 60.9 percent in 2012. More than 60 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail or drop box, making D.C.’s experiment with mail voting consistent with western states that all saw increased voter turnout after enacting similar vote-at-home systems.

Now, D.C. policy makers want to make the 2020 reforms permanent. Nudged by recent Republican efforts in state legislatures to restrict voting access, Councilmember Charles Allen introduced the Elections Modernization Amendment Act of 2021 before the city council in November. The bill would codify the 2020 election measures into D.C. law. Most significantly, it would require the Board of Elections to send a postage-paid ballot to every registered eligible voter and provide tracking updates on the status of their ballots, giving voters the peace of mind of knowing their mailed-out ballot has been received and counted. Allen hopes his legislation will allow “more and more and more people to be able to vote.”

While the bill’s passage is not assured, its chances look promising: Seven out of 13 councilmembers—three of whom are Black—co-introduced it, and it has strong support from an organization aimed at enhancing the political power of D.C.’s low-income communities.

If the legislation passes and is signed into law, D.C. would join a growing number of states—Washington, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Nevada, Vermont, and California—that have transitioned to vote-at-home systems. 

But the measure could also have ripple effects beyond the city borders. Skeptics of vote by mail have long worried that the system would suppress minority votes. That’s one reason it hasn’t spread more rapidly in cities and states east of the Mississippi that have large Black populations. Yet if D.C., a 46 percent Black city with a Black mayor, makes the switch to permanent vote by mail, other jurisdictions might be more likely to follow. What’s more, if the legislation passes and the election that follows goes as swimmingly as 2020, it could influence the national conversation by convincing the many people with power and influence who reside in Washington of the merits of universal vote by mail.

Notably, states on the West Coast have been “far more progressive in terms of expanding options for voters over time than any other part of the country,” says Amber McReynolds, the former CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, who now sits on the U.S. Postal Service’s Board of Governors.  

Even more significantly, the states that have adopted mail-in voting have been controlled by both Democratic and Republican officials in the governor’s mansion and statehouse. All that changed last year. Ahead of the 2020 vote count, former President Donald Trump went to war with vote by mail, scaring GOP voters away from mail voting with egregiously false claims that the system was rife with voter fraud. After he lost, he propagated lies that the election had been stolen from him. Since then, vote by mail has become much more popular among Democrats. 

“Historically, voting by mail was not really a partisan issue,” Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of Voting Rights & Elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, says. “In fact, often, the Republican Party saw more mail voting than the Democratic Party,” and it was “a form of voting that Republicans encouraged.” 

Beyond the simple convenience of voters being able to return their ballots in the way that suits them—whether by mailing them in or dropping them off—the system has other big pros: It reminds voters that elections are taking place (which is especially important in a non-presidential election cycle); it saves states and localities significant cash; and it means that voters are likelier to complete the full ballot because they have more time to research candidates and talk through their options with friends and family. “It’s like a take-home exam, open book,” Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, says.

But not all Democrats are completely sold on vote by mail. Some have criticized the method over the possibility that it could suppress low-income and Black votes. With the exception of Hawaii, all of the states that have enacted a vote-at-home system so far are majority white. D.C., by contrast, is a majority-minority city with a large Black plurality.

The logic behind these concerns is rooted in demography and culture. First, Black voters are more transient than white voters, says Tolulope Kevin Olasanoye, the national political and organizing director of the Collective, a PAC aimed at increasing representation of the Black community in seats of power. When people move regularly, they might be less likely to update their voter registration record, which would naturally become an obstacle for mail ballots reaching correct addresses. At the same time, there are higher rates of homelessness among Black populations: 86.5 percent of homeless people in D.C. are African American (compared with 46 percent of the general D.C. population). There is also a stronger culture of in-person voting among Black communities, partly due to the historic “souls to the polls” movement involving the transportation of Black churchgoers from places of worship to the ballot box after Sunday services, Olasanoye told me. 

This concern isn’t just a hypothetical. D.C. Council-member Allen says that in the June 2020 D.C. primary, “voters took up vote by mail at a different rate based on which neighborhood they were in. So, we did see, in neighborhoods that are predominantly more affluent and more white, they utilized vote by mail more.”

Yet, Olasanoye, alongside other advocates for expanded voting access, believes that mail voting can boost the political power of Black voters if implemented properly. 

The first stipulation of any good vote-by-mail system is that it provide a sufficient number of physical voting sites so voters have choices. The standard, according to McReynolds, who served as Denver’s director of elections from 2011 to 2018, is one voting center for every 20,000 to 50,000 registered voters—depending on state idiosyncrasies such as population density. 

Educating voters is also key. In 2020, elections administrators across the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars informing the public about how to register to vote, how to vote by mail, and what the rules and deadlines were. “That level of education has to happen in targeted communities, particularly in the Black community, now that we’re not in a COVID regime,” Olasanoye said. “For Black folks, like everybody else, they will exercise this option if they understand the rules of the game.”

One encouraging case study comes out of Baltimore. During a 2020 special election, Maryland’s 7th Congressional District—which has a majority-Black population and takes in about half of Baltimore City and chunks of neighboring Baltimore and Howard Counties—implemented vote by mail for the first time. 

Many advocates expressed grave concerns about the potential of the system to suppress voters without permanent addresses, especially given that the district encompasses some of the poorest sections of West Baltimore. But as the Washington Monthly’s Eric Cortellessa reported last year, the election turned out to be a massive success: Overall voter turnout increased by 10 percentage points between the February primary—held in the traditional, in-person way—and the April vote-by-mail election. The February primary, meanwhile, was actually the more competitive race: a Democratic primary in a Democratic district. Moreover, the district’s voters cast a stunning 157,075 mail-in ballots compared with just 1,009 cast at in-person polls.

To pull this off, the state Board of Elections took three key steps: They mailed a ballot to every registered voter (rather than putting the burden on voters to apply), kept three in-person voting sites open for those who needed them, and invested in high-speed vote counters. The results are clear evidence that, when implemented with care, vote-by-mail elections can empower a majority-Black electorate.

Washington, D.C.’s own 2020 general election provides similar evidence that mail voting can work in minority jurisdictions. For instance, in D.C.’s Ward 7, which is 91.7 percent Black, turnout increased from 59.6 percent to 63.1 percent between the 2016 and 2020 general elections, with 61.1 percent of voters in the ward voting absentee. 

All in all, if the D.C. legislation to make vote by mail permanent passes, it could be an opportunity for the city to prove that the system can boost turnout among all populations in a plurality-Black city. As Christopher Mann, a voting rights expert and professor at Skidmore College, told me, the city’s success could influence the national debate because “there is some reluctance from elected officials about which communities might be helped or hurt by this.”

It could also shape the conversation around vote by mail because of the professional makeup of its electorate. Simply put, people of power and influence—be they administration officials, Capitol Hill staffers, think tank scholars, or journalists—will get to experience, for the second time, the benefits of the system firsthand. That, Mann said, could dispel “the skepticism that comes from unfamiliarity.” 

In turn, those same people might feel more confident promoting vote by mail as a positive reform. “Everybody looks to the District of Columbia as the nation’s capital on many different policy issues,” Councilmember Brianne Nadeau told me. “We are always mindful of that.” In other words, it could lead to a potential domino effect.

If Republicans regain control of Congress, they could repeal D.C.’s proposed vote-by-mail law. Then again, they might worry that such a move could be the pretext Democrats need to get a majority of their caucus behind making D.C. a state, which would likely hand Democrats two more Senate seats.

While the bill’s passage is not assured, its chances look promising: Seven out of 13 councilmembers—three of whom are Black—co-introduced it with Allen. It also has strong community support. An organization aimed at enhancing the political power of D.C.’s low-income communities, Empower DC, supports vote by mail along with other initiatives to increase access. “If it were to be implemented fully and completely in D.C., it should assist with voter access for Black communities,” executive director Parisa Norouzi says.

To be sure, there are some risks involved. Congress has unique jurisdiction over the city. While the current Democrat-controlled Congress would have no problem with the legislation, Republicans “might see it as provocative … as an opportunity to have this debate on a national stage,” Mann said. If and when Republicans control Congress again, they would have the power to repeal the measure. 

Such repeals have happened, but they are relatively rare. Moreover, Republicans might be wary that overturning D.C.’s election laws could be the pretext Democrats need to get a majority of their caucus behind making D.C. a state, which would likely hand Democrats two more Senate seats. 

In the meantime, Donald Trump and his acolytes continue to cast doubt on the system and spread the lie that the former president actually beat Joe Biden. That means Democrats will have to do everything in their power to protect and enhance voting rights. Expanding vote by mail is one of the surest ways to do that.

Ella Creamer

Ella Creamer is an intern at Politico. She is a former intern at the Washington Monthly.