How We Vote: Is Colorado the Future?

On October 1 & 2, Reform for Illinois brought together community leaders, voting experts, and elected officials to discuss the future of voting in Illinois. 

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Long lines, staffing shortages, aging equipment… as Election Day approaches, these are just a few of the concerns confronting voters and election officials alike. Can changing the way we run elections avoid these problems while making it easier to vote?

Colorado is the latest proving ground for that possibility. Amber McReynolds, former elections director for the City of Denver, described Colorado’s innovative new mail-in voting system during a Reform for Illinois panel on Oct. 2. She said that while every state is different, in Colorado the system has made casting ballots easier while reducing the costs and administrative burdens of running elections.

Moderated by Reform for Illinois Policy Director Alisa Kaplan, the panel included McReynolds of the National Vote at Home Coalition, Jim Allen from the Chicago Board of Elections, Calmetta Coleman from the Chicago Urban League, Ami Gandhi from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Noah Praetz from the Cook County Clerk’s Office, state Rep. LaShawn Ford from the 8th District and Cheryl Jansen from Equip for Equality, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

How does Colorado do it?

In Colorado, every voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail. Voters can mail in their ballot or drop it in designated collection boxes right up until Election Day. If they’d rather vote in person, they can go to a county “vote center” instead. But most don’t — 93% of Colorado voters choose to fill out their ballot in the comfort of their own homes.

Colorado’s extensive vote-by-mail program has allowed the state to dramatically reduce the number of in-person polling places — now called “vote centers.”

Would Colorado’s model work in Illinois?

During the Oct. 2 panel, participants were intrigued by the possibilities of expanding vote-by-mail in Illinois, especially for voters who might have special language needs or difficulty getting to an in-person polling place. But there were also concerns about how the Colorado model might fit Illinois’ diverse voter population, and about the risks of making hasty changes to such an important system.

“I don’t know that communities who have historically been excluded from our voting system would be better served by (mail-in voting) being the only option,” said Gandhi, director of voting rights and civic empowerment at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Even with vote centers in the place of local precincts, she said “if it comes at the expense of a neighborhood polling place or a close-by option, then we certainly would need to get more input from the communities directly affected before we could assess whether these changes would be helpful or harmful or both.”

The panel also discussed the challenges of securing mail-in ballots, the importance of ensuring that homeless voters could either receive ballots or have easy access to polling places, and how to prevent voter intimidation without the enforced privacy of a voting booth. In the audience, Lora Chamberlain of the group Clean Count Cook County raised the question of whether an election conducted largely by mail would have the independent oversight that poll watchers provide on Election Day.

A gradual transition driven by voter choice

McReynolds agreed that rushing to implement change would be a mistake, saying it often leads to reforms with “no thought of the voters.” In Colorado, the transition to a vote-by-mail system did not happen overnight. The state first changed the way voters could opt in to receiving mail-in ballots. Under the old system, voters had to request a mail-in ballot every election cycle. It’s still done this way in Illinois.

In 2008, Colorado gave voters the choice to join a permanent mail-in list so that instead of having to apply repeatedly, they would automatically be sent a ballot before every election. The new option proved popular, and by the 2012 election, 70% of the voters had opted in. As more people joined, switching to a mostly mail-in system with fewer in-person polling places was a natural next step.

In Illinois, an incremental process that starts with an option to join a permanent mail-in ballot list might help address some of the concerns raised by voting advocates. It could allow election authorities to evaluate how receptive Illinois voters are to voting by mail and to incorporate community input at every stage of the process. It would also help determine whether switching to a mostly mail-in system with fewer polling places is the right fit for Illinois’ diverse voter population.

In addition, it could provide time to consider more improvements to Illinois’ current vote-by-mail system, such as enhanced security measures and more rigorous independent oversight over the mail-in ballot counting process.

Where do we go from here?

While vote-by-mail and vote centers appear to have worked in Colorado, no solution is one-size-fits-all. Everyone on the panel agreed that lawmakers and administrators should listen to voters. Moving forward, it will be essential to evaluate the success of early changes, look at the data, and see what it says about how voters want to vote.

Reform for Illinois is committed to continuing this conversation, and to advocating for election reforms that will boost voter participation while making our voting system more secure, efficient and fair.

Want to learn more? Read Reform for Illinois’ in-depth article about mail-in voting here.

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If Illinois offered the option, would you choose to automatically receive a mail-in ballot every election?
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