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The "Do It Your Way" State

by Judd Choate
October 17, 2020

This interview with Judd Choate, the State Election Director in Colorado, was conducted and condensed by frank news. The article was originally published in May 2020

Colorado made the change to widespread vote-by-mail six years ago. Can you talk about what that process looked like, and where you received the most pushback if any?

There was basically no pushback. Our change was over a long period of time. In 1980, Colorado allowed no-excuse absentee — People would sign up each year to be on the mail-in ballot list, and after each election, they would have to again request a mail-in ballot. In 2006, we created what's called the Permanent Mail-in Voter (the PMIV list), and in 2010, we provided an online way to sign for the PMIV through our online voter registration system. By the 2012 election, over 70% of our voters were receiving their ballots by mail.

So, in 2013, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation requiring that all active voters receive a ballot by mail. 

While it's true that that legislation was part of a very partisan bill – only Democrats voted for it and every Republican voted against it – it was not partisan because of vote-by-mail. Republicans didn't like other pieces of legislation. That became law in 2013, and we have been a vote-by-mail state ever since.

What did you see a change in the electorate? Did more people of a certain demographic start to vote because they were allowed to vote-by-mail? Did more people in general vote? 

Well, these are really hard questions to answer. I'm a social scientist, I have a Ph.D. in political science, and I was a professor for several years. When I am posed with these questions, I always struggle because, yes, there is a relationship between the adoption of vote-by-mail and voter turnout, but did it cause it? I don't know. 

It is certainly true that over the last 20 years we went from a state with an average turnout to a state with one of the highest turnouts. In the 2000 federal election, we were just slightly above the national average turnout. Since then, we have become the state with the highest turnout in the country behind only Minnesota. Minnesota always has the highest turnout, and we hate them for it. They are always the rockstar of turnout and we are now consistently trailing just behind them.

But, is that because of vote-by-mail? I think vote-by-mail did have a positive effect and increased our turnout, but there are a whole bunch of other things that are in that calculus as well. I haven't run the numbers, I haven't collected the data, I haven’t run the regressions, so I'm uncomfortable with the idea of saying that the increase is due to just that one factor. But, there is no doubt that vote-by-mail was one important factor in driving up our turnout.

Right. Do you feel like you act as a model for other States? 

Yes, I do believe we're a model, and that is not just me talking. The California legislation that was adopted a couple of years ago was largely patterned after Colorado. In fact, I went to California and testified and explained what the transformation Colorado undertook looked like and how this legislation takes a lot of those pieces and incorporates them into a California timeline. So yes, absolutely. We have been a model for Utah and Hawaii as well.

We joke that we like to think of ourselves as the Burger King state, the "do it your way state."

We mail a ballot to you 22 days prior to the election. Then we open early voting locations 15 days prior to the election, and we have early voting all the way through until election day. And then on election day, we have additional vote centers. All of the early voting stations also operate as voting centers, and then we are statutorily required to have many more. And we have same-day voter registration. No other state has all of these elements. 

All these elements are designed around this idea that our voters are our customers and the customers should be able to make decisions that best match their needs to be able to vote. We just try to maximize that opportunity by creating as many opportunities to have the chance to vote the way that you need to do it to correspond with your lifestyle.

It seems like common sense that states would try and make this as easy as possible for people, but obviously, that is not true. Which red states have adopted these tools?

Utah conducts all elections entirely by mail, and that was a recent adoption. They looked around and they saw Colorado, Oregon, Washington use vote-by-mail,  thought that the model looked right to them, and adopted it statewide. Over 70% of the votes cast in Montana are vote-by-mail, and I don't think anybody could argue that Montana is not a red state. Arizona has over 70% vote-by-mail. Nevada, which has a Republican Secretary of State, is adopting vote-by-mail for the elections this year. I don't know if they are going to keep it, but they are for this year, given the COVID-19 issues. Iowa has over 70% vote-by-mail, and Iowa also has a Republican Secretary of State.

Clearly, there are a lot of Republican election administrators or people who are the chief election officials who look at the data in other states that have adopted vote-by-mail and see it's a model that could work for them. 

What do you anticipate the response from the states to President Trump's wariness about vote-by-mail to be? Are you thinking about November any differently?

Well, I'm not going to talk about the president.

But, anyone who believes that there is a propensity for voter fraud in a vote-by-mail model doesn't understand how vote-by-mail works. 

All of the people that operate in this space, all of the election officials, understand how vote-by-mail verifies voters and only counts ballots that we can verify came from the right person. The states that employ vote-by-mail aggressively use verification methods. When people who don't understand elections, idly throw bombs at it, that just shows they don’t understand how it operates. There are built-in safeguards all along the way, which in many respects are much greater than are required for in-person voting.

What are some of those safeguards? 

We mail the ballot to you. If that ballot comes back as undeliverable, we know you don't live there anymore. That in itself is a verification of the fact that you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live. States with polling place elections have to take people's word for that. We're validating that they live in our state or jurisdiction every single time they vote. That's a huge piece of verification that vote-by-mail states have that polling place states do not have.

The second thing is that in Colorado, and most vote-by-mail states, the way that voters verify their identity is by signing the back of that ballot. For every single voter, that signature on the back of that envelope is verified against the signature that we have on file for that voter. There is no better verification, that is not biometric, than comparing the signature that voters gave when they got their driver's license to the one on the ballot. 

Are you looking for even more ways to engage voters in Colorado?

Absolutely, we want to be the new Minnesota. We want to be the state that every other state hates. The way we do that is to figure out any possible way that we can maximize voter participation while protecting against voter fraud. So how are we doing that? Well, this year we're going to send a postcard to every person who appears to be eligible and is not currently registered to vote. Colorado has the highest rate of registration in the country at over 90% — 90% of our eligible voters are registered to vote. But if you have 5 million people who live in a state, 90% means you still have 500,000 people out there who might be eligible to vote and are not registered. If we register them to vote, they are in our database, and we're going to send them a ballot 22 days prior to the election. That is going to drive up turnout. 

Just having more people registered to vote in a vote-by-mail state results in higher turnout because you have alerted those voters to an upcoming election and given them a really easy way to participate.

We are also installing drop boxes all around the state. We already have over 400, but we've set aside some of the federal money that we have received recently to encourage our counties to install more. We hope that by this election we will have closer to 500 drop boxes around the state. We would like to capture metrics about how close every voter in the state is to a dropbox to try to figure out how we can reach every single one of our voters, not just in the metropolitan area, but all around the state.

We have a number of different little things that we do on the edges to try to maximize voter participation, and I can walk you through a couple of those.

We used to be pretty restrictive when it came to felons. Now, the only restriction on felons is if you are currently incarcerated for a felony. If you are out on probation, if you are on parole, if you are an ex-felon, you can vote with no problem whatsoever. We also created a program to get people who are in felony status registered to vote more quickly. We require parole officers to alert people who are leaving an institution to the fact that they can register to vote, and tell them how. 

Recently, we have also allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 by the general. So for Colorado, that means you could have been 17 and voted in the presidential primary, and you could have been 17 and voted in the state primary. That has proven to be a really nice way to get young people engaged. In fact, among 17-year-olds who were eligible in the last presidential primary election, we had over 50% turnout. That's an amazing number. And that means they are very likely to vote in the general election because they are already engaged. 

Each one of those things is a half percent here or a half a percent there, but if you add them all up it means that you are the top state in the country for voter turnout, and that's what we're working toward.