Centering on Coronavirus Podcast: Voting by Mail

Voting by mail has been a major topic of discussion in the lead-up to the November general election. Keeping large crowds away from the polling place seems like a good way to promote public health and participation in our democracy. But it’s easier said than done, and voting by mail raises several important questions about feasibility, fairness, security, and the role of the federal government.

On this episode of Centering on Coronavirus, policy analyst Julia Baumel speaks with three experts on the topic: Amelia Showalter, a political data analyst; Robert Stein, a professor specializing in elections and voting behavior; and Tammy Patrick, a former county elections official. Published works from these three guests are linked throughout the transcript along with other resources mentioned throughout the episode. The full list of links is also available at the end of the transcript.

After you listen, be sure to check out the accompanying issue brief, “Voting During a Pandemic,” to learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed voting as we know it.

Interview Transcript

Julia Baumel: My first guest is Amelia Showalter. She is the former digital analytics director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and the current CEO of a data analytics consulting firm in Washington DC.

Amelia Showalter: My name is Amelia Showalter. I am the co-founder and CEO of Pantheon Analytics, which is a small data analytics and data engineering firm that I started with Evan Zasoski, who was my teammate on the 2012 Obama campaign. We basically do bespoke data analysis and one of the things that we’ve focused on just kind of by accident, I guess, is vote-by-mail. I’ve always been kind of interested in it just because I’m originally from Washington State, which is an entirely vote-by-mail state, and it was in the process of going to be all vote-by-mail when I was leaving for college. So it’s a topic  that I was interested in, but I just happened to get approached a few years ago by some folks who wanted to learn more and wanted to dig into the data. And these people later formed the National Vote at Home Institute. And so I’ve just been kind of on the vote-by-mail beat for a few years now. And of course, now with the pandemic and planning for election administration, it’s become quite a topic.

JB: She talks about the different categories of all-mail voting systems and how these systems might help promote both public health and voter participation in November.

AS: I mean, the benefits are pretty clear from my research and from other research. We basically see that going to an all-mail ballot system—which I want to say up front, because people get kind of upset about this. When we talk about vote-by-mail, we’re kind of lumping in several categories. So what I really mean in that case is ballots get mailed out to all voters. They don’t necessarily have to return those ballots by mail.

In fact, Colorado, which I think is really one of the best examples of this system, they mail ballots out to everyone, but then they have lots of different ways that people can return their ballots. There’s lots and lots of drop sites where people can drop their ballot. So that’s not technically returning by mail. People can still go and bring their ballot in and essentially vote in-person, but it’s still a mailed ballot.

But regardless of how the system works for returning those ballots, it seems pretty clear that states that do vote by mail—Colorado, Washington, Oregon, now all of Utah, see an increase in turnout, which is great. I mean, even under normal circumstances, that would be something to strive for. But now that there are going to be safety hazards to large groups of people congregating, standing in line, I think it’s even more important that voting by mail or at least being able to receive your ballot in the mail and figure out safe ways to drop that ballot off to get that ballot counted. It’s going to be even more important.

JB: With Pantheon Analytics, she authored two widely cited studies on the turnout effects of vote-by-mail systems in Utah and Colorado. In both states, she saw an overall increase in turnout- especially among voters she predicted to be less likely to participate.

AS: Basically what I did in both states is I used what we call a turnout score. This is something that we use more on the campaign side than on the research side, but we model how likely voters are to turn out. So there might be people with a 30 percent chance of voting or people with an 80 percent chance of voting. And that’s all just based on people’s vote history. In Colorado, for instance, when they switched to their vote-by-mail system in 2014, we could look at the estimated likelihood of everyone turning out and then see how they actually turned out. So we took all those people that were estimated to have a 30 percent chance of turning out. And what we found is that, in fact, 40 percent of them turned out. Maybe it was more than that, I don’t remember the exact numbers. And so that was sort of a positive sign for vote-by-mail. However, I didn’t see strongly partisan effect there. It mostly seemed to benefit people who weren’t regular voters who weren’t very out at the extremes of the partisanship spectrum. And so if Republicans are worried about vote-by-mail, that it’s suddenly going to help a lot of Democrats, certainly Colorado didn’t didn’t show that to be the case.

Then when I went over to Utah, to look at that data, that was actually a more useful way to look at pretty much everything on this topic, because they had some counties, but not all counties, switch to vote-by-mail in 2014 and 2016. Now, all the counties have switched over. But we had this nice period where we had kind of our pseudo-control group of counties that hadn’t switched. And then we had the counties that had switched, and we could look at expected versus actual turnout in those different types of counties. And again, I saw a huge bump in turnout. Vote-by-mail seemed to boost turnout by 5 to 7 percentage points, which is really, really huge. Maybe it doesn’t sound very big, but that actually is a really big turnout effect. In Utah, I found that there was maybe a slight edge for Democrats, that vote-by-mail seemed to boost their turnout a little bit more than it boosted Republican turnout, at least relative to their expected turnout. But in raw numbers, I’m not sure I made much of a difference. Utah just has a whole lot more Republicans. So even if they didn’t get quite as big a boost as the Democrats did, Republicans in Utah are still doing okay. So my own particular research does not find that this is a strongly partisan issue. It mostly is just a civic issue.

JB: So now I want to ask you about the recent New York Times analysis of the Wisconsin primary results that you were quoted in. And unlike all these other studies, including yours, it concluded that mail in ballots did overwhelmingly support this liberal candidate—I think it was for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. How do you interpret these results and what do you think they might mean for the future of voting by mail?

AS: I really don’t draw the same conclusion that the article did, or at least the article’s headline. And I totally understand that headlines sometimes get written by—not by the same people that did the reporting. But what was found in that analysis is that among people in Wisconsin who voted by mail, they were voting by double digits, I don’t know if it was 12, 15 points higher rate for the Democrat, or for the progressive candidate, than for the conservative candidate. 

But I think the important thing to remember there is that there’s self-selection. This is a “correlation does not equal causation” situation. And I don’t think that was conveyed very well in The New York Times article. I wish it were. And I tried to actually explain that to the reporter. I think in Wisconsin, the most important thing to remember is that something like 80 or 90 percent of people in any given precinct were voting by mail in the Wisconsin election. And that’s really unusual, both for Wisconsin and just for any state that isn’t already fully vote-by-mail. Usually if it’s an absentee state, maybe you have 10 percent, 20 percent of people voting by mail. And so the people who vote by mail are kind of the unusual ones. 

Well, in this case, it’s flipped. So the people who were voting by mail in Wisconsin, that was the norm. And I think what you really have to think of is who are the people who are voting in person in the middle of a pandemic? Are they in some way unusual? And my feeling is that probably, to me it would be not surprising if they were more conservative voters, because there are also people that are choosing not to vote by mail and are choosing to go out. We have seen so many studies showing that people on the conservative end of the spectrum are not taking this pandemic as seriously or are considering it a hoax. I’m not saying everybody. I think a lot of conservatives are taking it seriously. But again, if it’s 10, 15, 20 percent of your voters are choosing to vote by mail, I think it’s less that we should look at mail being good for Democrats and we should look more at the self-selection factors that cause somebody to, in this particular case, vote by mail versus voting in person.

JB: My next guest is Rice University Professor Robert Stein. He’s studied elections and voting behavior for decades, and he’s done lots of work helping states and localities implement vote-by-mail and other convenience voting systems.

Robert Stein: I’m a professor of political science at Rice. I’ve been here at Rice since 1979. My current—and probably for the last more than a decade—principal areas of research are public policy, but with an emphasis on election administration and voting behavior. Since probably the mid-1990s, I have been studying what you might call convenience voting—different ways in which people can cast a ballot. It started with something called early voting, which Texas was one of the early—no pun intended—states that adopted allowing people to vote before election day at different locations and different hours.

That moved into work that I did for several presidential commissions. I was a staff member of the Baker-Carter—James Baker and Jimmy Carter—Commission. And again, I worked on the Obama Presidential Commission focusing on long lines and my research focused again in both of those commissions on ways to improve the voting experience, both in terms of convenience, speed, efficiency, cost.

Over the years, I’ve written papers and consulted with local governments, but probably the things I’m most known for among election officials are two things. One, the Election Day vote centers, which are essentially early voting on election day, or where if you live in a county like Kings County, Staten Island, better known as Richmond, you can vote anywhere in the jurisdiction and always get an appropriate ballot that allowed for using a smaller number of larger polling locations where you could have maybe 100 machines, lots of parking spaces, shorter lines, lots of poll workers to help voters. 

I’ve since worked on the vote-by-mail systems in Colorado. I was given funding to study things like the cost reduction, the efficiency, the ballot completion, and a very peculiar thing that happened to vote-by-mail, particularly in these states that have—sending everybody a ballot. The peculiar way in which people return their ballot. And then I should say, in full disclosure, my work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Arnold Foundation, Rice University, the Baker Institute. I’m sure there’s somebody else who’s getting enough money. But most importantly, I’ve been funded by lots of counties. Right now, I am literally looking at data from poll workers around the country about their concerns and preferences for how we will handle the upcoming election not only in November, but in the primaries coming up in May, and June, and July.

JB: He also mentions increased voter turnout as a major selling point for vote-by-mail. He tells me about some of the states with well-established, universal VBM systems where up to 80% of all votes are cast by mail. In many others, mail-in voting rates are nowhere close. If these states want to scale up mail in voting by November, they have a lot of work to do, and they’re likely to face some roadblocks along the way.

RS: There are about a handful of states that mail a voter a ballot before every election. In the three, five states, seven states, the share of votes cast by mail is well over 79 percent. That’s pretty good. But in the other 43 states, the share of votes that are cast by mail is 11 percent. So for those states, those other 43 to 45, depending on how you count, what will it take to get them from that 10 percent to let’s say 50 percent, which would be extraordinary and nowhere near the 80 plus percent in states like Oregon, Colorado, Washington?

Well, it takes a lot. First, you’ve got to mail everybody a ballot. You say, well, that’s not a problem. Everybody is registered and has an address. Unfortunately, the addresses on most voter lists don’t match the Postal Service’s delivery, which means that if you were to mail in my state, the 16 million registered voters, a ballot, maybe ten to twelve percent would come back undelivered. And not surprisingly, people move around. People don’t give their actual address when they register to vote. The only reason you have to give your address and prove you live there with a driver’s license or some other certificate, the utility bill, is so they can get you the right ballot on election day for the precinct you live in. And what kinds of voters do you think are likely not to get their ballots in the mail? Younger voters, black voters, voters who tend to be more residentially mobile. That’s your first problem.

Second problem, you’ve got to make up ballots. You’ve got to print them. In Colorado and Oregon and Washington, they took two years perfecting and getting contracts and finding people who could not only print those ballots, but print them in a form that could be mailed, get an envelope that could be mailed, with the return postage. Oregon came up with my favorite because I’m a big origami person, a brilliantly folded ballot, but again, finding those people, those companies, in the midst of a coronavirus? I think Oregon and Colorado tell me—I work with Colorado a lot—it took them about two to three years and they started with low-turnout races.

Then there’s this other problem. Most people, as I mentioned, in these 43 states have not ever voted by mail. They don’t know how to vote by mail. Which means what? They have to know the state’s law regarding when you request a ballot and who can request a ballot. Now, 36 of the 50 states have no-excuse mail-in voting, which means anybody can request a ballot. Knowing that you can request a ballot is one thing, knowing how and when is another. Knowing how to fill out the ballot, you say, well, what do you mean, fill out a ballot? But how hard can that be? Trust me, you’ve never probably taught with optical scanning sheets. But students and voters make mistakes. They can’t get that little dot properly filled in. They miss it, and the optical scanners can’t properly count their ballots. Worse is that many voters don’t know when they have to return the ballot, where to return their ballots, how to return their ballot- by mail or in person. And finally, many voters don’t remember to sign their ballot. 

Oh, and did I mention that the communities that are conducting these mail elections now have to have enough personnel, enough what we call scanning machines, to process those mail ballots so they can report the results on election night.

JB: As for the Wisconsin primary, Professor Stein also expressed some skepticism about the causal inferences drawn by the New York Times on the partisan effects of voting by mail. Rather than any unfairness inherent to the system, he says Democrats simply did a better job of mobilizing their base to vote by mail—something Republicans have also done in the past.

RS: Causation. It shouldn’t be confused with things that happen together—covariation. That’s the problem with people thinking about mail-in voting, particularly both Democrats and Republicans. One thinks that it helps the Democrats, one thinks it helps Republicans. They’re both wrong. The causation is reversed. People want to vote by mail because a party or candidate or interest group is so mobilized, I’m so motivated to do so.

In that story, I think it was by Mr. Epstein, he pointed out or he had quotes from two Republican and Democratic operatives. The Democratic operative said, “We knew we were going to have trouble when the state Supreme Court said we couldn’t change the primary date, couldn’t even change how many days after Election Day people could return ballots. We were in trouble. And we organized and we worked hard.” The Republican counterpart to this Democrat said, “We were caught flat footed, we weren’t ready, we blew it.”

In 1978, California radically relaxed requirements for mail-in voting. In that year, the Republicans, realizing that their base was older, and might be more likely to turn out if they could vote by mail, engaged in an enormous effort to increase not only Republican voter turnout, but Republican turnout among elderly voters to dramatically turn that election around in 1978. My point? The method is not the reason for people to vote by mail, Democrat or Republican. The method is there to be used strategically. And when a party or candidate strategically uses one method of voting, and they do so at the advantage over their competitor, there’s an effect. That’s what happened in Wisconsin.

It’d be like saying the following: the Yankees bunt real well and the Dodgers don’t. Should we get rid of bunting? We could. But maybe the Dodgers should just learn how to bunt better. Both parties engage in a strategy to win. Sometimes their strategies are better. You probably read the Politico story about how the Biden campaign is just way behind the curve on digital campaigning—and they are, probably. Well, should we get rid of the Internet? No.

I’ve been working on this for the better part of 20 years. People who adopt these changes never ask the serious causal inferences. Because of that, they get bit in the rear end. And I think in the case of both Democrats and Republicans, as is often they do now in the highly polarized environment, they talk right past each other.

JB: So how should states prioritize both safety and practicality when designing their plans to expand vote-by-mail for November?

RS: The virtues of vote-by-mail are absolutely true. But the virtues of mail voting require an investment that the next hundred and seventy five days we will not make. So the answer to the question, what do you do about vote-by-mail? You try to scale it up as best you can, but don’t scale it up to the point where you can’t run an effective, efficient, fair, accessible, election.

Basically, my logic is the same as the epidemiologist. Lower the curve, spread out the voting. People will have to vote in person. They will have to risk their well-being, their health. In Wisconsin, we saw evidence of that on election day—300,000 compared to almost a million, I think probably voted by mail. It’s possible that things get much worse rather than better. If we don’t inject Lysol into our veins, maybe we’ll be alright. But my sense is that we will be seeing 3,000 different ways in which people can vote and those correspond to the counties. And what I would say, my last parting shot on this, something to think about: you can hold an election with very few voters. We do it a lot. You cannot hold an election with very few poll workers. Poll workers are to the health of a democracy what doctors, nurses, custodians, technicians, first responders are to the health of the society. And at this point, I would say both are very much under siege.

JB: Some other important issues involved in the vote-by-mail discussion include election security and the role of the federal government. To discuss those, my final guest today is Tammy Patrick, former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections department in Arizona and current senior advisor to the elections team at the Democracy Fund.

Tammy Patrick: So I was a local election official in Maricopa County, Arizona. The time I was there, we had about two million registered voters. I worked there for more than a decade as the federal compliance officer. In my role there, I did all of our submissions to the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act, oversaw our language program—and at the time we were covered under the Voting Rights Act for both Spanish and an unwritten Native American language of the Tohono O’odham. I also oversaw all of our voter assistance programs. So I did all of our ballots that we did in Braille and large print. And I served as a liaison, and still do, for the National Association of Election Officials to the United States Postal Service. They have something called the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee, or MTAC. And I’ve kind of been a liaison and representative between the election field and voters and the Postal Service when it comes to things like voting by mail.

During my time in Maricopa County, in 2012, when we saw those long lines at the polling places and voters waiting six, seven, eight hours, and then President Obama very famously said we needed to fix that, he appointed a commission, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. And I was very honored to serve on that commission.

After our report came out on the American voting experience, I then moved from Arizona to Maryland and worked in Washington, D.C. at the Bipartisan Policy Center. While at BPC I published a report called “The New Realities of Voting by Mail.” And that report is still very salient today. It really talks about how we need to align our state laws and our expectations to fit with the new and current Postal Service, what their delivery standards are, that sort of thing. After serving at BPC or working at BPC for about three years, I transitioned over to the Democracy Fund. I now serve at that foundation as a senior adviser to their elections team.

JB: Great, thank you. So first of all, some believe that a massive nationwide expansion of voting by mail is going to be what’s necessary to make sure that the election in November is both safe and fair. But then others, including the president, don’t agree. How do you think we should think about the benefits and drawbacks of voting by mail?

TP: So there are a couple of things to know. First of all, when we talk about voting by mail— some states call it absentee voting. And that is that across the country, we have a patchwork of the way in which elections are conducted and the state laws that either allow or set certain parameters on who can vote by mail. And so the different ways in which a state sets up that voting policy will really inform what happens in November. It’s important to know that all states have security measures in place, some level of voter authentication, to make sure that it is, in fact, the voter who’s requesting that ballot. And so there are security measures that definitely ensure that if there’s anything happening with someone fraudulently casting a voter’s ballot or receiving a voter’s ballot, that there are protocols in place to catch that person. And that’s where we’ve seen that happen recently. And that’s what’s important to know first and foremost is that there are security measures in place, and that when fraud does occur—and it’s very, very minimal—it’s caught. And that’s what’s really critical. And I think that that’s the first and foremost thing we need to know. 

The next thing we need to kind of think about is that, as we look across the landscape of the nation, we have states in a wide spectrum. So everything from mailing a voter’s ballot out to every single registered voter for every single election, and five states do that currently. It started in Oregon and then Washington state, Colorado, and most recently, Utah and Hawaii have added their names to the list of all fully vote-by-mail systems. Now, we do have a handful of other states that have the majority of their electorate voting by mail.

So Arizona, California, Wyoming, there’s a whole bunch of western states where large portions of their voters are already voting by mail anyway. They are more uniquely positioned in this COVID moment to service those voters well and transition quickly to increase capacity. Now, the next phase of what we see around the country is that there are states where anyone can request a ballot to be mailed to them. And so those states, traditionally, some of them have seen a growth in vote-by-mail. And that’s kind of what we see is this evolution of voting by mail where, when voters are provided the opportunity to do so, they do it, they tend to like it, and then continue to vote by mail as they move forward. So what we’ve seen in these states, and some of them have pretty good adoption rates. Some are relatively low, like in Wisconsin. I can talk about them for a minute. They had a traditionally fairly low number of, or percentage of, vote-by-mail voters. And in this moment, of course, we’ve seen in the recent primary election that huge numbers wanted to vote by mail in this moment where we’re all sheltered in place. So one of the things that I think we need to know is that those states that allow anyone to request a ballot by mail, you are going to have large volumes of voters doing so.

In elections, oftentimes we look to former election cycles to see and try and gauge what we need to do to allocate resources and understand how to service our voters in the best way. Some of that has to be set aside because we’re in a very unique situation. So we know that voters are going to want to vote more by mail than in the past. We just don’t know how much more.

So I think if six months ago you had asked election officials in Wisconsin, which in one of the former elections they just had a couple of years ago, they had about 168,000 voters reported as having received an absentee ballot. Now, the majority of those were actually in-person absentee. They didn’t get them by mail. So if you had told them six months ago they were going to have more than a million voters—I think the final count was something like 1.4 million—request a ballot, they would have laughed at you. They would have said there was absolutely no way that’s going to happen, and yet it did. So in those states, they need to be prepared.

And it’s going to be a real challenge for them, because oftentimes they have to, the voter has to submit an application. And that application needs to be data entered, it needs to be verified. And that all doubles the time and doubles—not entirely doubles the cost—but it increases the cost of what it takes to conduct that part of providing the voter with their ballot.

This last phase or group of states are those states that also require an application for the ballot, but they also require a reason, or an excuse, in order to get it. And traditionally in those states, it’s you’re over 65, you’re permanently disabled, you’re going to be out of town that day. There are a variety of reasons. Now, in this moment, many of those states have said, we agree that a global pandemic is an illness. So check off the box that says “illness” and we’ll allow anyone who wants to vote by mail to vote by mail. Now, just recently in Louisiana, we saw the Secretary of State wanted to offer that to everyone, and the legislature said no. So in this moment, we have election officials at both the state and local levels that are trying to service voters in a safe way and provide them an opportunity to still participate, but know that there can be court challenges to that, legislative challenges.

And that’s where whatever the landscape is today, it’s potentially going to change for our June primaries. It’s potentially going to change in November. So the most important thing in this whole piece is that voters really need to be aware of what their options are and make sure that they verify their voter registration information is current and up to date. So any mailings that get sent out, they’ll get. And many of the states that do require an excuse—hats off to Rhode Island and to Georgia and others who sent out applications to their voters so that they know that they can, in fact, request a ballot by mail. And so it’s really incumbent upon voters in this moment to make sure that their information is correct, make sure they understand the parameters of what they need to do in order to get that ballot by mail if that’s what they choose to do, and then also understand what they need to do in order to get it returned in time to be counted. And we can talk a little bit about some of those parameters as well, because they are both security and access measures.

JB: Yeah, I’d love to hear about some of those, too. The kind of security and access measures, for example, that might help prevent fraud or voter coercion or ballot harvesting, as they call it.

TP: So there are policies—and you mentioned a number of red flag terminology, the button-pushing words, as it were, that people like to use. And I think that they’re very emotional words, right? We want to understand that our elections have integrity, and that only eligible voters are voting, and that all eligible voters that attempt to participate have that happen successfully. That there isn’t anything put in their way to impede that ability to participate. So here are a few things to contemplate. There are a variety of laws that are implemented across the country, whether it is you need a notary in order to submit your ballot back to the state, or you need a witness to witness that you’re the one signing the affidavit that you’re mailing back in. Or you have to make a copy of your photo I.D. and mail that back in with your ballot. Or that there can’t be any sort of ballot collection by anyone outside of a family member, what have you. All of those things at the surface sound as though they are security measures. And I guess to some degree they are. But in reality, it’s kind of window dressing.

The most recent and, quite frankly, one of the only examples of election fraud that we’ve seen in decades in this country, in North Carolina, they had almost every single one of those things in place. They had anti-harvesting laws. They had a witness requirement. They had all of these, quote unquote, “security measures” in place. But oftentimes what those things really do is inject another person into that voter’s voting experience. What I mean by that is that in states where I get my ballot as a voter, I vote my ballot. I put it in the envelope, I seal it, I sign it, I drop it in the mail because it’s postage paid. I don’t have to go out. I don’t have to get a stamp somewhere, especially in these COVID times. People aren’t supposed to be leaving their homes. I don’t have to have someone else sign it. So I don’t have that intimidation or coercion or fraudulent potential being inserted there because I have the autonomy to vote my own ballot and return it in time. Those are a couple of policies that really bolster the security of the ballot. The other piece is that if you’re a state that prepays the postage and if you’re a state that allows for either a postmark or the intelligent mail barcode, some of the tracking—and we can talk a little bit about ballot tracking through the Postal Service in a second.

If you allow for those things, if it’s the weekend before Tuesday’s election day, and I’m a voter and I’m taking my time with my ballot, I haven’t voted it yet. I haven’t turned it back in and I don’t finish it until maybe Sunday. So I’ve missed Saturday’s mail, even. If I’m in a state where I know it can be postmarked on Monday, then I can still put it in the mail and mail it back in and it should be fine. Or if I’m in a state that allows me to drop it in a drop box, by providing those return options, I really negate the need for me to hand my ballot over to a stranger knocking on my door. But there are certain situations and communities where if they don’t have regular postal service, a lot of rural communities, particularly places like in Indian country, there are some challenges to daily postal delivery. If I’m in one of those places, I may have to have someone else take in my ballot. The other challenge in that piece of it is that the Postal Service recommends you put your ballot back in the mail one week before it’s due, so basically Tuesday before Tuesday’s election.

There are many, many states that allow a voter to request a ballot as late as Saturday. Yesterday was an election day in Ohio and voters could request a ballot up until noon on Saturday, which meant it didn’t go out in the mail until Monday. First class delivery standards are two to five days for the Postal Service. 

So there are state laws that sound like they’re empowering voters to make those requests late in the game. But really, they’re setting voters up for failure. So we have to think about how the various state laws actually play out in what I refer to as the “new reality” of voting by mail, because they may sound like they’re a security measure when in fact they’re not securing anything, it’s just window dressing. Or they may sound like they’re empowering voters when in fact, they may be setting them up to fail. And so there are things that election officials have been advocating for that hopefully state legislatures will start listening to. Because, ultimately, it’s all about whether or not eligible voters can interact with our elections process in a successful manner and making sure that all eligible voters are able to participate, and individuals who are not eligible are prevented from doing so.

JB: Right, that makes sense, just kind of avoiding the need for anyone but the voter to get involved. And you mentioned some of the ballot tracking mechanisms some states use. I think it’s something Colorado has in place, and it’s worked pretty well. Can you talk a little bit more about those?

TP: Yeah, so I have been steeped in some of the Postal Service work for a number of years, particularly as it relates to voting by mail. And it always surprises me how much I don’t know. And so, for your listeners, they may have noticed on the mail that they receive a couple of things. One is on the front, there is a barcode, oftentimes that’s right there by your address. That’s called an Intelligent Mail barcode. That Intelligent Mail barcode is what helps the mail go through the mail stream in a faster, more efficient way, because a lot of it is automation now. It’s no longer the case that there are postmasters putting mail into cubbies. I always laugh when I watch “Miracle on 34th Street” at the holidays and see the Postal Service where they’re putting these things in these massive cubbies. So that’s not the case anymore. The Intelligent Mail barcode contains the voter’s address, it contains the class of service. It also contains the information that this is an official ballot and the Postal Service needs to expedite it and increase the service and make sure that it gets back to either the voter or back to the elections office. 

Also on your mail, you may have noticed on the back of the envelopes, oftentimes you’ll see these weird orange marks that look kind of like a barcode. And they are, that’s actually processing marks. And that contains the time and date stamp in the same way that a postmark does. So what’s important about both of those types of barcodes is that it can be used to improve the voter service. One is with the ballot tracking. There are a variety of services—you mentioned Colorado, the state of Virginia has done it, many other jurisdictions all across the country—which allows the voter to know the ballot has been mailed to them, when they should receive it, and then also when they mail it back, it lets them know everything was fine. Or, you know what, you forgot to sign it. Or, your signature didn’t match. And a really important element of ballot tracking is the curing ability.

And I’d like to think about the curing of the ballots when there isn’t a signature or when the signature doesn’t match really as a security measure. It’s absolutely true that it helps eligible voters make sure their votes get counted. But it also would be the only way you would be able to identify fraud if, in fact, fraud was happening. I will tell you, I have called—over the period of a decade or more that I was in Maricopa County in Arizona—I called hundreds, if not thousands of voters when those two things happened, either it was missing a signature or it didn’t match. And not once did I have a voter say, “Well, I never voted. It wasn’t my ballot.” But I did have them tell me, “Oh, that’s crazy you called. My hand is in a cast. I had to write with my left hand,” or “I most recently suffered a stroke. And it’s changed the way I write,” or, “I was really in a hurry and I was signing it on the dashboard of my car while I was driving down the highway,” and some other even crazier answers. But I think that’s an important piece of it, is when something is amiss or awry, that you reach out to the voter, and that you find out why that is the case.

So the ballot tracking is a great way for the voter to know what’s coming to them. And even in states where they don’t have ballot tracking, I think it’s important for everyone to know that they can sign up for a free service from the Postal Service that’s called Informed Delivery. And what Informed Delivery does—you sign up online—it sends you an e-mail every morning with a picture of what is going to be in your mailbox that day. So I have a post office box, I live in rural Maryland. And every morning I get an email that shows me what’s going to be in my post office box that day so I can decide if I’m going to go and pick it up or not. It’s important because most recently I got the message that I was going to have a ballot coming to my mailbox that day. And lo and behold, there it was. So that’s a free service that allows everyone to know when their ballots are going to be put in their mailbox. And that’s a real bonus because, one, it’s free. Two, it lets the voter know that that ballot should be there. So if it’s not, they can ask other members of their household if they got the mail, and where’s their ballot, what’s going on with that. And if they don’t receive it, they can call into their local elections office and find out what the situation is or request another one.

JB: That’s super interesting. I never knew that service existed. I’m definitely going to have to look into that.

TP: It’s really a fabulous, fabulous service. And I think it adds a whole nother level of security in the vote-by-mail environment.

JB: Yeah, it really sounds like it. Now just kind of pivoting to the federal government’s role in all this. Obviously, states control their own elections. But given the crisis, do you think Washington should try to take a more active role in shaping state voting practices?

TP: So I think that that’s a really good question, and I think that question gets a variety of answers. I think in this particular moment, we are seeing some real challenges that election officials are trying to service the voters in a safe and secure way.

But unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that far too often there’s this insertion of partisanship and politicizing this and almost weaponizing the situation as a way to inject certain either policies or obstacles for voters. So when it comes to who should lay out the foundation of how our elections work, I think the federal government certainly plays a role in ensuring that all Americans have equal access to the ballot. I think that this is a point in time when state and local officials desperately need financial assistance in conducting these elections, particularly because local governments have been hit really hard by the coronavirus as well as everyone has.

But I’m hearing from local election officials that in this moment when they’re being asked to conduct elections in a different way, needing to do things with the potential to need to purchase new equipment and need to go into contracts with vendors to provide vote-by-mail ballots, they’re actually being asked by their local governing authorities to reduce their budgets by 20—I’ve heard as high as 20 percent. So I think that the federal government definitely has a role to play in helping to provide the necessary resources. And that is something that we are sort of seeing. So some would say, “Well, what do you mean? There were just 400 million dollars set aside for states to conduct their elections.” But sadly, that was with a 20 percent match. And what I’m hearing from some states is that they’re going to have a really hard time coming up with that match in order to draw down any of those federal dollars. And that’s really unfortunate because they desperately need some additional assistance right now.

JB: Right. And you were starting to get at my last question, which was going to be about the CARES Act and that $400 million allocation, which many people think would have been way too little even if there hadn’t been that match requirement. Do you think that, if significantly more is allocated, states will be able to pull off huge expansions of voting by mail by November?

TP: So one of the most precious resources we have is time. And when I think about 2020, I always make sure that we think that this as still two phases, because we have many, many states, almost half the states, that still have elections they have to conduct before we get to November. And that is the remaining primaries this spring. And then many of them have their own state primaries later on in the summer and fall. So the precious time that we have for our legislatures to respond to the state and local election officials is running out. Many of those legislatures are either wrapping up in the next couple of weeks and some of them already have. So the time that we have for people to make a decision on what’s going to happen in November is as precious as the dollar amount that local and state election officials are going to receive.

And so I think it’s really kind of a twofold challenge in that none of us know anything anymore. None of us know what November is going to bring. Will we be in a similar situation? Will it be worse? Or will things have gotten miraculously better? So, because we don’t have a concrete answer, there are many who are loath to make major changes in the way in which the elections are going to be conducted. And the problem there is that we don’t want to be in a situation where we are doing too little, too late.

We don’t want to be in a situation where an election has already started and the parameters, the guidelines, the rules are changing. And that’s what we’ve seen play out in the primary session. In the primary season, we’ve seen litigation and legislation and changes in how the election was going to be conducted up until the night before an election on Election Day. So that’s what we want to avoid in November. The one thing that’s important, I think, for your listeners to understand is that the November 3rd date will not change. That’s very different from the primaries where the states have the ability to set the date. November 3rd is November 3rd is November 3rd, and that’s when the election will be held. And so it’s going to be incumbent and we need to make sure everyone is aware of what they need to do in order to participate. Part of the challenge in all of this is that, here we are, global pandemic. We’re sequestered in our homes going on weeks and weeks and weeks at this point. And I think that the American electorate is both frustrated and they feel isolated.

And for me, the one thing I want to make sure that everyone hears and knows is that the vote power is still there. The voice of the people is still there. The challenge is that, and what could possibly be different, is that the ballot box may not be at a polling place in November. The ballot box might be your mailbox.


Pantheon Analytics/Amelia Showalter: “Colorado 2014: Comparisons of Predicted and Actual Turnout” and “Utah 2016: Evidence for the positive turnout effects of “Vote At Home” (also known as Vote by Mail) in participating counties

Reid J. Epstein, The New York Times: “Vote by Mail in Wisconsin Helped a Liberal Candidate, Upending Old Theories

Barry Burden, Robert Stein, and Charles Stewart III, The Washington Post: “More voting by mail would make the 2020 election safer for our health. But it comes with risks of its own.

Bipartisan Policy Center/Tammy Patrick: “The New Realities of Voting by Mail

U.S. Postal Service: Informed Delivery