Whatever fires may have been lit after the polls closed, Election Day 2020 was remarkably trouble-free. The nation’s leading election law expert, Rick Hasen, whose book “Election Meltdown” provided a disturbing, fact-based catalogue of all the ways the general election could potentially go wrong, gave election administrators an overall grade of “A+” for the work they did to prepare for the challenges of conducting an election during a pandemic.
Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute (NVAHI), deserves a large share of the credit for this outcome. NVAHI is the only group in the country specifically focused on the policy and legislative changes necessary for voting reform and the expansion of vote-by-mail, as well as what it takes to implement them.
NVAHI has shared its materials with every state in the country. Leading up to the 2020 election, it helped dozens of states with everything from policy to ballot design, website improvements and communications strategies, with help from nonprofit partners including the Center for Civic Design, the Center for Technology and Civic Life and ideas42.
In 2018, McReynolds was recognized as one of Governing’s Public Officials of the Year for her work in overhauling the Denver election system and her role in improving election operations at the state level. Last week, she talked about what this election season has taught us and what her nonprofit is doing to expand the use of mail voting.
Amber McReynolds, CEO, National Vote at Home Institute. (Photo: NVAHI)
What are some of the important lessons from the 2020 general election?
The media has done a good job of highlighting election administration, trying to shed light and explain the election process, but this election cycle has shown that there's a great misunderstanding of both the mail ballot process and in-person voting.
The second thing is that it looks like close to half of the country used a mail ballot. We're approaching 80 million mail ballots, and it might be even higher than that. This is the first time that's ever happened. Clearly, Americans of all political stripes like this method of voting. We need to look at those results and follow what voters are requesting, what customer behavior is, if you will. That’s very important to analysis of this election cycle and for policy-making going forward.
Another piece is that when you see the use of mail ballot increase, you also see turnout go up. When voters have more time and more options to vote, turnout goes up. That tells us a very big story.
Some have said this may be the best-administered election ever, that election officials really rose to the occasion. What’s your take?
I agree. It absolutely is one of the smoothest elections that I have seen, given the extraordinary challenges that election officials faced.
A lot of states struggled during the primaries because of the pandemic, but also because they were dealing with a higher number of mail ballots. Part of the reason that Election Day was as smooth as it was is that more than a hundred million people voted before Election Day. I think election-day votes will probably come in around 30 percent or so.
The vast majority of voters voted before Election Day, and a large operation like this goes better when you serve more of your customers ahead of one day.
What was your own experience as an election official?
I was an election official for 13 years, and director of elections in Denver for seven years. From 2011 to 2018, we went through an organizational restructure. We improved a lot of our customer service functions and our processes and technology.
In 2012 to 2013, I was one of the very few local election officials that helped craft and design a new voting model for Colorado. We worked with legislators to transform our voting procedures and processes and modernize them for the first time in our state's history. That involved a combination of mailing every active voter a ballot, creating vote centers during an early voting period and preserving the option of in-person voting on Election Day. We also modernized registration. Colorado became known as a top state for turnout, security, access, all those things.
How did you come to the National Vote at Home Institute?
Because I was very much involved in crafting the Colorado model and the legislation, and then implementing it, I started to get a lot of calls from states, jurisdictions and policymakers, asking for help and recommendations. I helped California with their legislation after they came and saw our process in Denver.
At the end of 2017, I was contacted by a couple of folks, including the former Oregon secretary of state, Phil Kiesling, who wanted to start a nonprofit to expand vote-by-mail and voting options for all voters. I joined NVAHI as a founding board member.
We had an acting director at the time, and we searched for a CEO and a director for six or seven months. The board members kept saying, "We need to find a replica of Amber. Someone with experience running elections who has implemented this model."
Finally, I decided that it would be the best use of my experience and skill sets to help other states. I made the very difficult decision to leave Denver, because I love the team and everybody I hired there, and to make a go at it with this nonprofit.
NVAHI has grown significantly in the last two years, and we have become the national expert voice on this topic. We've had great success expanding this mode of voting across the country. As the pandemic brought new challenges, we expanded our team to help states even further and have had a tremendous impact.
What are some successes that stand out to you?
We built a couple of toolkits that we provided for free to election officials. One of them was an operational tool that helps you work out how much equipment and staff you will need based on the number of ballots you expect, and how long it will take to process them.
That tool was instrumental in helping Milwaukee. If you remember the primary in April, Milwaukee and Madison really struggled for a long time to process ballots, because they didn't have the equipment necessary. They didn't have a good staffing model, all of that.
We worked with Milwaukee directly after the April primary, and they were able to procure some new equipment. We helped them with staffing, and this time they were pretty much done with their mail ballots by Wednesday morning. Last time it took a few weeks.
Kentucky and Georgia also stand out. We helped Dekalb and Fulton counties after their primaries. Georgia had five-hour lines in the primary, and five-minute waits, on average, on general election day. The main reason for that is they pushed hard to have people vote early and to vote by mail.
Georgia and Kentucky are examples of states that previously had not had an online method to request an absentee ballot. They built those out very quickly this year and stood up an online request portal. Georgia also added ballot tracking statewide, and we worked with them to make that happen. They also expanded the early voting period.
California is another state that really stands out with the adjustments they made very quickly. The state office worked with the county officials directly, very early in 2020, to make the decision to mail a ballot to every elector. They're the largest state in the Union by far - I think L.A. County alone is bigger than 41 states. The fact that California scaled up their system, were extremely successful and had record turnout is a testament to this method of voting.
Election officials, the people who actually count votes, agree that being nonpartisan is a job requirement. What happened to make voters suspect their motives?
Elections should never be politicized. The post office should also never be politicized. Both of these core functional services, required under our constitution and essential to government, were politicized this year. It's never a good thing when you politicize functions that shouldn't be political.
Partisan politics, the nastiness of this election and the unfair targeting of election officials are extremely destructive to our democracy.
Are you aware of instances where unhappy voters have crossed the line?
I have multiple friends that have had security for weeks. Some election officials literally have guards at their houses because they've had death threats.
These are public servants that have given their time away from their families, extraordinary amounts of hours working during this election cycle, the same with poll workers. It's just unfair for them to have their integrity questioned, or to be attacked when many of them have done this work for decades.
When I was an election official, I experienced some of that. There were things we had to have the police investigate - tweets, online harassment and things like that, all for doing our jobs. I've gotten some pretty nasty messages when I've been on national media talking about the election. I haven't said whether I voted for one person or another, I've simply talked about the process. That upsets people, apparently.
How can we improve understanding moving forward?
Civics education at a young age is very, very important. I’m a single parent, and I have a seven- and a nine-year-old. Every time my ballot comes, we sit down together, we go through it and my kids help me fill it out. They ask me questions, like “What does a governor do? What does a mayor do?,” and I can explain things to them. Then we make a choice.
They're getting a civics lesson every single time about why voting is important and what voting decisions mean for the community as a whole. I share that story a lot with parents, and tell them if you're not completing your ballot with your kids, you should.
The second big thing is I think that there should be some sort of national service. For instance, before 16-, 17- or 18-year-olds are eligible to vote, requiring service as a poll worker or to an election office during an election would be immensely valuable. A lot of jurisdictions focus on recruiting students, but requiring service as part of civics or government class, nationally, would be excellent. It would also would be great to have a program for college students to work in the election process for credit.
Beyond that, incentivizing people in the general population to serve as poll workers or election workers in each election would be wise. Maybe there could be a tax incentive, or some other incentive, for that.
How might changes made for 2020 be reflected in future elections?
More people than ever voted by mail. There's an impact there of the pandemic, but vote-by-mail has been growing for the last three decades. It's been increasing every year and there's never been a downturn.
In states where mail voting has been expanded, you don't see voters go back once they vote by mail. You don't see people return to waiting in line or voting in person. We have to respond to what voters and customers are asking for, and that means that there are long-term policy implications.
We might see some of the states that did go to vote-by-mail, or all vote-by-mail, adopt that permanently. There’s no state that is all vote-by-mail, by the way. Every state that mails ballots out still offers in-person voting options. That gives voters the option to make their own choice.
Certainly, there will be expansions. Some states that have made this more partisan than others might try to roll it back. I could certainly see something like that happening if one party thinks that it didn't benefit, regardless of what the voters think. It’s possible that might happen, but we will work on not having that happen.
Will online voting be next?
We certainly need to keep piloting technology and considering how to provide better options for military voters and voters with accessibility needs. I don't think the security and the technology are at all ready for widespread use of online voting.
We'll continue to see pilots and security enhancements. You have to keep trying different ideas, being creative, being curious, working through security issues and figuring them out. That’s really what’s necessary.
What do you say to a voter who insists against all evidence that results can’t be trusted?
In Denver, when someone would be at the front counter complaining, I'd come down and say, “Why don't I take you through a tour of the process?”
I'd tour them around and I'd say, “If you want to watch, you can watch right here through the windows in the counting room.”
“What?,” one said. I told him – it was usually a “him,” to be honest – “As a member of the public you can come in here and see what’s happening. Sit here and watch and just let us know if you have questions.”
He stayed and watched for 40 minutes or so, and then he left me a note saying he'd never seen anything so organized in his life. His mind had been changed.
Transparency solves a lot of the misunderstanding and misinformation, and we need more of it.