Smooth Vote-by-Mail Elections in Colorado, Utah Provide Model for California

Poll worker Barbara Villa waits for people to vote in the primary election at the Union Station polling center on June 30, 2020 in Denver, Colorado.  (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The primaries conducted in Colorado and Utah this week played out like a California election official's dream: Record turnout. Voting centers without lines. And a robust election workforce with ample protective gear.

"We were able to set a record turnout for a state primary, even during the pandemic," said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

The smooth administration of two largely vote-by-mail elections this week provides a model for California, where officials are preparing to send every voter a mail ballot in the fall.

Roughly three-quarters of California voters already receive a ballot in the mail. But with the spread of COVID-19 threatening the safety of in-person voting in November, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators from both parties have moved to expand options for voters to cast their ballot at home.

Under a bill signed by Newsom last month, every registered voter will be sent a ballot before the general election. While another bill, to allow counties to consolidate in-person voting locations if they extend early voting times, is awaiting a vote in the state Assembly. The result of the changes would bring California's system into line with those in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — states that mail ballots to all registered voters.

"Here in Colorado, we are very used to using mail ballots. But with that said, I think there was an added effort to really focus on getting folks to cast the mail ballot," said Griswold. "We did things to encourage their use and also to make sure that for people voting in person, that that was just as safe as possible."

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Like in much of California, new cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in pockets of both Colorado and Utah, where election officials were pushed to take extra precautions in advance of the primaries.

In Utah, in-person voting was limited, but voters were allowed to postmark ballots on Election Day. Ballots received by counties were left untouched for 24 hours to prevent the spread of the virus.

With some longtime Colorado poll workers (known in the state as election judges) at high-risk for the coronavirus, Griswold led a recruitment drive, offering extra pay and sick leave.

"We recruited hundreds of judges," she said. "So, we have not had problems like other states have had in terms of closing polling centers or any delays in the processing of mail ballots."

The actions taken by both states "really provide a better service for voters; meet people where they are and certainly increase turnout," said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which advocates for mail balloting.

The low-drama administration of this week's two state primary elections also provides another proof-point against President Trump's unfounded claims that voting by mail will lead to fraud and work to the advantage of Democrats. In Colorado, a higher percentage of Republican primary voters cast a mail ballot than voters in the Democratic primary.

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Despite California's extensive experience with mail-in voting, the state will still face challenges that didn't exist in Colorado and Utah, said Paul Gronke, Director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.

In Colorado, only a fraction of voters choose to vote at the polls, and vote centers are more typically used for voter services, like updating registration forms.

"California is still in the adaptation phase and there are significant numbers of the citizenry who either need, for important reasons, or who choose to cast their ballots in person," Gronke added. "So, I think California officials are still adapting to try to figure out exactly how many voters are going to be appearing in person."

In California's March primary, voters faced daunting lines at vote centers in Los Angeles, a problem that was largely the result of faulty technology, but was compounded by a failure to adequately balance staff across the county's voting locations.

To avoid lines, California officials will have to carefully project where voters will turn out, as they shift to larger, more dispersed voting locations.

Tuesday's primaries in Colorado and Utah also continued another vote-by-mail trend: a vote-counting process likely to extend days or weeks beyond Election Day. Colorado reported just 60% of results on Tuesday and, as of Thursday evening, Utah's hotly-contested Republican primary for governor was still too close to call.

"Everyone needs to calm down, wait a few days, give election officials the time and the space to be able to process those ballots and count them," Gronke said.