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Colorado's mail-in voting infrastructure a boon during COVID-19 

Democracy doesn't stop

click to enlarge Colorado's secure mail-in voting system is, by its nature, social-distance friendly. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
  • Colorado's secure mail-in voting system is, by its nature, social-distance friendly.

Colorado will hold its primary elections on June 30. But during a pandemic, nothing happens normally. On April 7, Wisconsin's presidential primary elections drew national attention, presenting a model for how states could handle the process of democracy safely. According to an NPR report, turnout there was respectable for a presidential primary — 34 percent, about the same as the state's turnout in 2008.

But Wisconsin's turnout was only as high as it was because 71 percent of those who voted did so by absentee ballot, a massive leap from 27 percent in November 2016 and 21 percent in November 2018. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, only five of a planned 180 polling places opened that day. Vox reported that, after initially agreeing to a typical in-person election, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers pushed to delay the election or extend the deadline for absentee ballots due to how suddenly the pandemic came on. The former was overturned by the state legislature and supreme court, and the latter was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. And the Wisconsin State Journal reports that at least 67 Wisconsinites tested positive for COVID-19 after voting in person or working at the polls that day, though it's hard to say for certain these people were infected because they were voting.

Medical experts continue to warn of a possible second spike in COVID-19 cases as states reopen — on May 17, Forbes reported a spike in new COVID-19 cases in North Dakota, Texas and Arkansas, though they did note that increased testing capacity may mean those numbers are misleading. As nobody knows how long this pandemic will last, it should be no surprise that voting by mail has been a hot topic of discussion across the country.


"I firmly believe that no eligible voter should ever have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote, and that there should be national expansion of mail ballot," says Jena Griswold, Colorado Secretary of State. "The best case scenario is [what] we're doing in Colorado, the fact that we have early voting, online voter registration, and the fact that we mail a ballot to every registered voter allows us to have an incredibly high participation rate, but also have built-in social distancing in those mail ballots."

In 2013, Colorado state law changed to mandate that every active voter receive their ballot by mail. Voters can mail their ballots in or return them to a polling place. Voters can also register up to the day of the election, and if they lose their ballot or do not receive one, election officials will print a new one on-demand. In every Colorado county except for San Juan County, where ballots are counted by hand, votes are scanned in by machine. According to El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman, federal standards dictate that scanners should have no more than one misread ballot per half million, though he notes that, when tested, El Paso County's equipment had zero misreads in 1.5 million tested ballots.

Even after that, any county that does not count ballots by hand must perform a risk-limiting audit, measuring the vote tallies that the machines released against randomized samples of the stored physical ballots. The Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal have called Colorado one of the safest places in the country to vote.

"When I go to election conferences... you get a crowd of people that come over from other states, and they know about the Colorado model and how exceptional it is. And then they want to know more," says Broerman. "They want to know how we've gotten to where we were and how we do this. They have a lot of questions, and every state comes from a different perspective, and they all want to try and be like us someday."
There has, however, been opposition to expanding mail-in voting. President Donald Trump, despite himself voting by mail, has rallied many members of the Republican party against expanding mail-in voting, claiming without proof that it would cause Republicans to lose elections. However, in late April, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that 70 percent of respondents said any voter who wants to vote by mail should be able to, and 52 percent said all elections should be held by mail. Further, both Griswold and Broerman, a Democrat and a Republican respectively, claim broad bipartisan support for Colorado's all-mail voting system.

Broerman notes, however, that Colorado's system requires extensive infrastructure to function: consolidated voter registries, laws, public education, staff training, counting machines, and trustworthy partner contractors who produce the ballots. Colorado has had years to bring these pieces together, and he's skeptical that it's possible for other states to do so in six months.

click to enlarge Chuck Broerman - CLERK AND RECORDER
  • Clerk and Recorder
  • Chuck Broerman
The increasingly computerized nature of the 21st century invites the question of whether or not voters could fill out electronic ballots and submit them online. Per the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, military personnel and overseas electors are able to do just that in Colorado. However, experts in computer and network security are "virtually unanimous" that online voting would be destructive to the integrity of U.S. elections and to public trust therein. Stanford University computer science professor David Dill calls online voting a danger to democracy, and noted IBM research pioneer Dr. Barbara Simons founded the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation to spread awareness of the issue.

"There is no way to guarantee that the security privacy, and transparency requirements for elections can all be met with any practical technology in the foreseeable future," says David Jefferson, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory computer scientist and member of the Verified Voting Foundation board. "Anyone from a disaffected misfit individual to a national intelligence agency can remotely attack an online election, modifying or filtering ballots in ways that are undetectable and uncorrectable, or just disrupting the election and creating havoc."

Blockchain technology might make secure online voting possible, but not by November.

Ballots for the June 30 primary election will be mailed out the week of June 8. To register to vote or update a voter registration, go to govotecolorado.com.

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