On April 7, many Wisconsinites put their health in jeopardy to exercise their right to vote. At the time, stay-at-home orders were in place across the country. Elections set to take place during the preceding weeks in states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia had been postponed. But the Wisconsin primary went on as scheduled, forcing thousands of people to line up at a limited number of polling places despite the threat of the novel coronavirus.
That scene in the Badger State, along with a growing list of primaries that have been postponed since, escalated a nationwide debate about how elections should be conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many governors, secretaries of state, and members of Congress from both parties have advocated for an expansion of mail-in voting so people can cast a ballot without fear of catching the deadly virus. But some Republicans—most notably President Donald Trump—have denounced the idea, claiming the practice is an easy target for fraud.
Absentee Ballots are a great way to vote for the many senior citizens, military, and others who can’t get to the polls on Election Day. These ballots are very different from 100% Mail-In Voting, which is “RIPE for FRAUD,” and shouldn’t be allowed!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2020
Colorado is one of just five states that sends a ballot to every registered voter by mail, and if the success of our elections is any proof, Trump’s assertions don’t have much merit. “Mail-in voting is safe if you have the proper processes in place,” says Wayne Williams, who helped refine Colorado’s mail-in voting initiative while he was secretary of state from 2015 to 2019. “Our state’s system is an example of how things can be kept secure.”
Both Williams and current Secretary of State Jena Griswold say there are two key pieces that help Colorado assure the integrity of its mail-in voting system. First is the ability to maintain accurate mailing lists. To do that, addresses are regularly updated using information from both the National Change of Address database and the Colorado Department of Revenue, which receives notice of your updated location when you revise that info during a DMV visit. The accuracy of that directory ensures people actually receive their ballot. Voting rolls are also examined against the Social Security Index, so people who have died can be removed.
The second important security measure is the ability to cross-check voters’ John Hancocks. Before you submit your ballot, you must sign the back of it. After being collected from the ballot box, a team of bipartisan election judges appointed by county clerks compare those squiggly lines to the signature listed under your name in the state’s voting database, which is typically pulled from your driver’s license. If the two don’t match, the county clerk sends you a letter asking for proof the ballot is yours, usually by sending back a fixed signature.
Williams says his team once had to send such a note to his daughter when he was secretary of state: “She had carefully spelled out her name on an early driver’s license and by the time she was in college it was a scrawl.” If there appears to be evidence of some sort of double or illegal voting, though, the secretary of state can refer someone to the district attorney for investigation. According to Griswold, only .0027 percent of the more than 2.5 million ballots cast in Colorado during the 2018 midterm election were suspect enough to take that type of action. “It’s really rare,” she says, “but it’s still important that we guard against it.”
Those protections do go beyond just updating lists and examining autographs. Colorado also checks with the five other states that conduct all elections entirely by mail, including Oregon and Washington, to make sure someone isn’t casting a ballot by mail in multiple locations. The state even defends against what is known as ballot harvesting with a law that says the most ballots one person can turn in is 10. That means you can still take the ballot your elderly grandma lawfully filled out to a polling place for her, and it hopefully limits the chances that people will give their ballots to someone who says they’ll turn it in but has no intention of doing so.
Griswold is also quick to point out that because mail-in ballots are analog, it’s more difficult for anyone outside the state or country to possibly interfere. “We know foreign countries want to undermine our democracy,” she says. “Part of the way they do that is through elections, but you can’t hack a paper ballot.”
Our whole system has led many election experts to call the Centennial State one of the safer places to vote. “The people that study this stuff put Colorado near the top of the list in terms of managing elections,” says David Kimball, a professor at University of Missouri–St. Louis and one of the country’s leading election administration scholars. It’s even helped the state’s turnout consistently outpace national numbers: Nearly 60 percent of eligible voting age adults in Colorado participated in the 2018 midterms compared to just 48 percent nationwide. More people also participated in the 2020 presidential primary than in any primary in the state’s history.
It is still unclear, though, to what extent similar procedures can be implemented across the country for upcoming primaries and the general election in November. Colorado has been fine-tuning its all-mail elections since a state law required the shift in 2013. We even got some practice with a wide-ranging absentee system that was already in place before that. Sixteen states still require voters to come up with a valid excuse to be able to vote by mail. Williams says those places may have a harder time building out a program that allows as many people as possible to avoid a polling place come November.
Griswold, though, is more than willing to educate others on Colorado’s system. She’s gotten questions from at least a third of the states about how to make the switch. “President Trump is pointing toward voter fraud as a distraction,” she says. “People shouldn’t have to make a decision between casting their ballots and protecting their health.”