Jimmy’s Colorado Politics Column | Mail-ballot debate needs nuance

Written by on August 18, 2020

Today, Gov. Polis, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Secretary of State Jenna Griswold, Attorney General Phil Weiser and Denver Clerk and Recorder Paul López will hold a press conference about Colorado’s vote-by-mail (VBM) experience to “push back on President Trump’s false attacks against” mail-ballots. 

It’s obviously a coincidence the event is being held on day one of the Democratic National Convention, but it also comes at an important moment as other states consider VBM for their elections amidst the pandemic.

In a CNN interview, Griswold painted a rosy picture about VBM and accused President Donald Trump of “lying about mail ballots” and advancing “voter suppression.”

“Colorado has a very clean history of running great elections with vote-by-mail,” she said.  “We have safeguards in place to make sure we would catch any type of double voting including signature verification, rules about ballot collection and a lot of other safeguards.”

Griswold is correct: Colorado has a tried-and-true VBM system. We’ve faced challenges along the way, and even recent failures by election officials like Arapahoe County Clerk Joan Lopez.  Yet overall, Colorado is a shining example of how VBM can work well.  What must not be left out are the critical caveats. 

Trump, some Republicans, Democrats and national media alike are equally engaging in broad-brush statements.  Griswold’s predecessor, Republican Wayne Williams, underscored this point in an interview on my webshow with both Williams and Arapahoe County’s previous clerk, Republican Matt Crane.  “When someone says mail ballots are perfectly safe or mail ballots are ripe for fraud, it depends on which system you’re talking about,” Williams said.

He’s right.  Colorado is the third state — following Oregon and Washington — to implement statewide VBM.  Our system features robust mechanisms to ensure election integrity: a thorough and well-maintained voter registration database; a multilayered signature verification, rejection and cure process; drop boxes with 24/7 video surveillance; multilevel chains of custody from drop box to collection and an opportunity to vote in-person, among other things.

In Colorado, election officials have vendors, suppliers and ballot-printers lined up, with historical mail-ballot voter data to reference, and they begin processing mail-ballots 15 days before the election.  Importantly, we’ve built up to this point over a 20-year period — starting with coordinated and primary elections by mail in the mid-2000s — and have held general elections by mail since 2014 and have made improvements along the way.

Most states are very different.  They may not have well-maintained voter databases.  They may have no-excuse absentee voting, but no mass-mailing experience.  They may not have adequate vendor and supplier relationships.  They may have laws on the books that forbid ballot processing until election day.  While they can benefit from Colorado’s experience, many states are essentially starting from scratch implementing a very complicated system.

Additionally, as Williams reiterates, the bill Democrats passed in the U.S. House forbids the signature verification that’s worked so well in Colorado.  “That is a system ripe for fraud because it strips away signature verification.  It simply says, as long as somebody signs the ballot, you have to accept it.”

Crane strongly supports Colorado’s VBM process, going so far as to say that “mail ballot is more secure than in-person voting.”  However, as Crane notes, “just throwing money at it at this point in the calendar isn’t the panacea that people will think it is.  It can help,” but states and counties really need their ducks in a row.

Colorado offers a successful mail-ballot model.  However, it’s one thing to have a VBM system; it’s another to have one where voters trust the process and believe in its integrity. 

When the system is proven, as in Colorado, it functions phenomenally well, providing the kind of election integrity voters need to count on.  But rushing through the process, stripping away signature verification and just throwing money at states and the postal service completely misses the mark.  Some states will make this work; others won’t be able to.

No one should force the issue, but nuance is needed in this conversation.  Both sides — Trump’s and Griswold’s — are incomplete. As Williams points out, “When the president talks about mail ballots being ripe for fraud, I think he’s referring to the House bill that strips away signature verification.  When (Griswold) talks about ‘the system is secure,’ she’s absolutely talking about the Colorado system that all of us have worked to ensure.” With VBM, the devil is in the details, and America must get the 2020 elections right.  Our nation’s future literally depends on it.

Click here to read Jimmy’s August 17 column at Colorado Politics, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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