Colorado election officials were regularly seeing 70, sometimes 80, percent of voters casting their ballots by mail.
That’s because the state offered the ability to vote as a permanent absentee.
“Most of our voters were voting that way anyway,” said Donetta Davidson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association.
To do so, however, voters had to apply for permanent absentee status.
That changed with a 2013 law that standardized the vote-by-mail process. Now, everyone in the state receives a ballot by mail that they can cast by either mailing it back or taking it to a voter service center. Those centers also have voting machines for people who want to cast their ballots in person.
“When we were thinking about the legislation, we took what the voters liked and built upon that, but also gave the choice to the other people. If you want to go to the polling site, we’re not going to take that away from you,” Davidson said.
Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, lauded the efforts made in Colorado with regard to expanding voter access.
“It’s a good example of voters having multiple points of access to our system and trying to reach out to voters in a bunch of different ways,” she said.
Expanding Voter Access
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law tracks voting laws across the country and advocates for voting rights. The center considers bills based on whether they would expand or restrict voter access. In 2014, for instance, 10 states passed laws the center deemed as expanding voter access, while three states passed laws restricting access.
“We’ve seen some momentum toward increasing access in certain states,” said Pérez.
Since 2012, she said, 16 states have passed laws to improve the election system and increase voting access; laws in 11 of those states will be in effect by Election Day in November.
The most common improvements have been in online voter registration and other measures to modernize the voter registration system, as well as an increase in early voting, she said.
Colorado’s law included provisions that allow voters to register on election day, as well as to register online. That, said House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, complements the vote-by-mail system.
Hullinghorst sponsored the 2013 legislation, as well as the 2014 cleanup bill, on behalf of voting rights group, civic organizations, and the county clerks and recorders.
“We looked at various ways that we could improve Colorado election laws so that we could ensure in future elections that we had maximum accessibility, that we used all the modern technology available to protect the integrity of ballot box and to make it as a easy as possible for people to vote,” she said.
That’s one reason for the choices in casting a ballot, including early voting for two weeks prior to the election and centralized polling places, she said.
“That coalition of folks really wanted to address some of the problems we’ve seen in elections, both statewide and nationally, to ensure we provided a legislative framework to prevent voter suppression and to ensure that politics, to a large extent, aren’t allowed to hinder people from voting,” she said.
Easier Registration Process
“Americans want free, fair and accessible elections,” said Pérez.
Toward that end, she’s encouraged by the number of states working to modernize their registration systems.
Nebraska is one state innovating the online registration process. Legislation passed this year allows the use of signatures at the Department of Motor Vehicles in its online registration process.
“It reflected a very prudent understanding of the fact that when you are going to switch to online registration, you should also do the electronic transfer at the DMVs,” Pérez said. “In way too many states, registering to vote is overly reliant on paper.”
The computer transfer of information is much quicker, more accurate and more cost-effective than filling in the paperwork.
“Nebraska got that when you do the online system, which is basically designed that way to transfer information, you should also do it at the DMV,” Pérez said. “The kind of platform you build supports both, so you get the bang for the bucks for both and it makes sense to do it together.”
Nebraska Sen. Bob Krist, who sponsored the bill for Secretary of State John Gale, said this wasn’t the first time the idea had come before the legislature. A colleague had proposed using the DMV database as a baseline for people to vote and do other things they might need to do.
“At the time, the software and technology was not available for us to validate the things that would need to happen in order to register to vote,” Krist said. “My statement was that at some point the technology will catch up with our ideas and at some point we might be able to do this.”
That point in time was this year.
The legislation allows anyone who has a valid driver’s license in Nebraska to register to vote in the county in which the license is issued. Those without a license—and those who don’t want to make the change—can still register at the election commissioner’s office, Krist said.
He’d like to see the use of technology expanded and thinks online voting might be down the road for Nebraska.
“I think we need to move to a point where the right and ability to vote match the desire of someone to vote,” he said.
Louisiana also is using its DMV offices for voter registration purposes. The legislature passed a bill this year that permits 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they apply for their driver’s licenses, according to the Brennan Center roundup of voting laws.
Massachusetts’ 2014 voting overhaul includes similar provisions for young voters and online voter registration.
Massachusetts Rep. James Murphy, who chairs the House election law committee, said the purpose of the bill is to encourage people to vote. Online registration and pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds would go a long way toward accomplishing that.
“In today’s world, people are banking online and doing everything online it seems and it seemed like a natural progression that people should also be able to register to vote online,” he said.
Not only does online registration make it easier for people to register, but it also can eliminate confusion on election day where people might show up at the wrong polling place, Murphy said. Online registration is not just for first-time registrants; people also can change addresses when they move, he said.
Murphy said pre-registering young voters helps stoke their interest in democracy and the election process.
“This may help young kids more easily get into the election process by already being registered to vote,” he said. “The 16- and 17-year-olds are the future state representatives, future state senators, future governors, future presidents and so we are looking ways to encourage young kids to become active in voting process.”
Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow voters to register and vote on election day. Illinois in 2014 and Colorado in 2013 are the latest to make the change. But Illinois’ move is considered a pilot project in the November election only and limits the same-day registration only to selected sites within each election authority.
Gov. Pat Quinn in a statement lauded the legislation soon after it was passed.
“Democracy works best when everyone has the opportunity to participate,” Quinn said, according to The Chicago Tribune. “Instead of turning away eager voters at the ballot box, (the legislation) will make sure more Illinois residents have a chance to have their voices heard.”
The Massachusetts law also included a provision allowing residents to cast ballots starting 11 business days before an election and ending two days before election day beginning in 2016; it is the 33rd state, plus the District of Columbia, to allow early voting, according to CSG’s 2014 edition of The Book of the States.
Secretary of State William Galvin believes early voting should increase the number of voters casting ballots in elections. Only 3 million of the 4 million eligible Massachusetts voters participated in the last presidential election, Galvin told MassLive in May.
“The question is ‘how do we close that gap?’” Galvin said. “And I think this bill goes a long way to doing that.”
Some states that have had early voting have moved to restrict it, Pérez said.
“The restrictions on early voting can be pernicious because we know in some instances, there are particular folks that take advantage of it,” she said.
Murphy of Massachusetts said early voting will alleviate some of the congestion of long lines at the polls in state elections. His bill allows for early voting 10 business days prior to the election. To ensure the provision doesn’t burden coffers of local communities, the clerks in towns and cities across Massachusetts only have to allow early voting during regular business hours, Murphy said. They can, however, add other times as they see fit.
Early voting, he said, might “encourage people to get to the polls and allow people to get to the polls who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. That will go along way toward increasing voter turnout,” Murphy said.
The first election in Massachusetts where early voting will be allowed is in the 2016 presidential election. Murphy is optimistic the new law will help alleviate some of the problems seen in previous elections.
“One of the problems that arose during some of our elections, especially presidential years, were long lines at the polls and that’s why we had looked at online registration and early voting,” he said.
The Illinois pilot project also includes a provision to expand early voting for the 2014 general election.
Changes in laws across the country are aimed at making it easier for people to register to vote and cast their ballots. But they also come with added benefits.
Changes in Colorado’s voting laws worked well in the 2013 municipal elections, Hullinghorst said. Turnout was up 30 to 40 percent in elections that typically don’t draw huge amounts of interest, she said.
Higher voter participation was just one of the benefits of the Colorado law.
Mesa County, Colo., Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner, president of the Colorado clerks’ association, said standardizing and modernizing the elections process also reaped some efficiencies.
“We were able to really build a solid system that’s sustainable financially and for the process so it can be repeatable,” she said.
Davidson, of the clerks’ association, said while clerks need judges with more technical knowledge to run the election, they need fewer judges because of the elimination of some precincts.
Even with a high percentage of mail-in voters, “the county was still having to set up a lot of machinery to accommodate the in-person voters who really were just no longer showing up,” Reiner said.
With fewer precincts to cover, counties won’t have to purchase as much voting equipment the next time they upgrade elections system, she said.
“The investment is going to be more in the high-speed central counters than it will be in the more expensive voting machines that have to be out in the field,” she said. “That, for our county, is a big deal.”
The changes also allowed county election officials to hone in on best practices and training materials to improve elections going forward, Reiner said.
“Election day is election day and nothing but 100 percent accuracy is acceptable,” she said. “There are no do-overs, so the pressure is intense to make sure that the election we run is an accurate reflection of the will of the people in our community.”
The ultimate benefit, Hullinghorst believes, is better governance.
“I think where you have the greatest participation in voting, and where you make it easy for people to do that, you have better government,” she said.