||Voting Rights and the systemic obstacles to in-person voting
||Led the effort to remake Colorado’s voting system and now leads the National Vote At Home Institute to promote best election administration practices nationwide
||Local, State, National
What she did
As Deputy Director and then Director of Elections in Denver, Amber McReynolds led the effort that remade Colorado’s election system into a national model for other states to follow. Now, as the chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Vote at Home Institute & Coalition (NVAHI), she is the go-to expert on vote by mail (VBM) and helps keep voters and their needs at the center of the election process – a critical role during an election year plagued by the coronavirus.
Amber McReynolds worked in the Denver elections office from 2005-2019, serving as director of elections during her last seven years there. She had arrived in Denver armed with a master’s degree in comparative politics, experience with efforts to improve the voting process in the United Kingdom and efforts in Iowa to mobilize students to vote, and a passion to simplify the election process for the voters it is intended to serve. She also arrived with a deep understanding of the significant barriers and confusing rules and procedures involved in U.S. elections. And she brought several ideas on how they could be improved.
During her tenure, which included five years as deputy director of elections and seven years as director, McReynolds had the chance to act. She remade the voting process in Denver, and eventually, the State of Colorado, so that it had one priority: serve the voter by making voting easy, safe, and secure.
Her singular focus on “the customer”, with an emphasis on voting by mail, produced significant results. Voter participation rose from 66% in the 2008 presidential election to 72% in 2016 – a participation rate that was ten points higher than the national average. At the same time, cost per voter dropped by about 33% to $4.15. Those numbers were cited by Governing magazine when it honored McReynolds as one of its 2018 Public Officials of the Year.
McReynolds was also instrumental in Denver’s development and adoption of BallotTRACE, a first-in-the-nation online system that allows voters to track their mail-in ballots. In principle, it is similar in purpose to the online applications used to track FedEx and UPS packages, though the stakes are higher. The project took more than a year to roll out and involved coordination among three vendors: a local software developer that partnered with the city on the system’s development; the printing company that was responsible for designing and printing a new envelope with an intelligent mail barcode; and the US Postal Service, whose handling processes needed to be understood and embedded in the software’s design.
After two effective limited-run beta tests in 2009 and early 2010, the Denver Elections office rolled out BallotTRACE at scale in time for the 2010 November elections. A 90% decrease in call volume from voters wanting to know the status of their mail-in ballots was all the proof McReynolds needed that the system worked as planned.
By 2012, 72% of voters in Colorado voted by mail. Four years later, that figure increased to 93%.
“My primary focus on a daily basis and my energy were solely committed to improving the process for every single voter.”
– Amber McReynolds, explaining her time in the Denver election office
Once BallotTRACE was up and running, the Denver office turned its attention to updating its in-person voting system. With so many people voting by mail – in Denver the figure has been close to 95% – it did not make financial sense to invest in a proprietary system that would be costly to install and maintain, and would lock the city into a long-term single vendor relationship. Instead, the office opted to build a system using commercially off-the-shelf hardware that included Canon high speed scanners, printers, and touchscreen tablets that would enable secure, paper-based voting and digital vote-counting. The new system is Bluetooth-enabled, allowing people with disabilities to connect their personalized accessibility devices, if they have one, to make it easier for them to cast their votes in person.
In an interview with the Brennan Center for Justice, which published a case study of Denver’s new voting system, McReynolds explained, “We believe that designing a solution that puts the voter first will inherently bring operational efficiencies, cost savings, transparency, and accountability. This approach has proven to be effective with other innovative solutions that we have implemented in Denver.”
McReynolds also led implementation of another innovative technology project – eSign, a door-to-door campaign application that digitally captures voter signatures, allowing voters to sign petitions, register to vote, and update existing information – all online.
In 2013, McReynolds was the driving force behind popular legislation that overhauled Colorado’s voting system, in what she says was the “first time in history” that all of these reforms were approved in a combined voter bill. The reforms included:
- Obtaining 100% vote by mail status, meaning ballots would be mailed to all registered voters. Colorado was the third state to adopt the vote-at-home system after Oregon and Washington;
- Allowing automatic and same-day voter registration;
- Providing extended deadlines for registering by mail, online, at a voter registration center, or at a driver’s license examination center; and
- Creating county population-based voter service centers where any voter could register to vote, update their information, cast ballots, and drop off completed ballots obtained by mail. The centers replaced polling locations to which voters had been strictly assigned; now, any voter could use any voter service center (also called vote centers in other states).
By this point, McReynolds’ work was attracting attention from other state governments around the country. Not long after the passage of Colorado’s voting reform legislation, she introduced a contingent of election officials and legislators from California, including Secretary of State Alex Padilla, to the many changes made to the Colorado electoral system since 2008. After hosting them in Colorado, she had the opportunity to speak in Sacramento at a conference sponsored by Future of California Elections (FOCE). Doug Chapin, a long time elections consultant, introduced McReynolds at the conference by recalling a presentation she had given the year before in Texas: “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in this business and what [Amber] talked about is going on in Colorado knocked my socks off.”
In part due to McReynolds’ work and collaboration, California crafted and passed legislation that included several of Colorado’s voting reforms:
- Full vote by mail
- Replace neighborhood polling centers with county-wide vote centers
- Expanded early voting
The reforms were to be phased in, starting in 2018.
That year, McReynolds had made the “tough choice” to leave her position in Colorado. She was now a nationally recognized elections expert, and she wanted to share her expertise in a more concerted, effective way nationwide. As noted by Jonathan Brater of the Brennan Center for Justice, local officials are “the ones who can make the biggest difference. Amber’s an example of someone who can bring the importance of (election) discussion to state and other policy officials.”
In 2019, she stepped into her new role as executive director of the National Vote At Home Institute (NVAHI). Founded two years earlier by an Oregon businessman, NVAHI’s mission is to ensure the security of US elections and put voters’ needs first. NVAHI educates legislators and election officials; gives feedback on policy objectives; testifies in support of bills; educates journalists; conducts original research; and finds opportunities to partner with like-minded organizations for greater reach in the effort to assist voters who want to explore easier voter registration processes and alternatives to voting in person. Its website, Voteathome.org, assists state officials by providing vote by mail data, white papers, and nuts-and-bolts information about all aspects of establishing VBM in counties or states, as well as NVAHI best practices and webinars on how to execute VBM plans.
With the nation suddenly in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election year, McReynolds and NVAHI found their services in high demand. States were no longer just thinking about how to update and modernize their electoral processes and systems – they were urgently seeking ways to protect voters as well as the staff and volunteers who worked the polling centers from the coronavirus.
McReynolds recognized the threat that the coronavirus posed late in March as candidates began canceling live appearances and states started to postpone primary elections. She anticipated the challenges of many states seeking to implement or expand, even temporarily, vote by mail, and drafted Vote At Home Scale Plan, a roadmap for states looking for technical, logistical, and legal options to quickly and securely get the job done.
In the document, McReynolds notes that voting by mail may not be the right answer for every state. She explained that the most likely candidates for full VBM status are the states in which many or most counties already vote by mail: Nebraska, Montana, and Arizona. For these states, it is “easier to flip the switch, because they are just adding more volume of ballots to an election,” she said. The plan lays out several options that can help other states that are less prepared to accelerate efforts to implement or expand vote by mail.
“Our work has really been magnified [by the pandemic],” McReynolds said two months later, “so we’re very busy responding and helping to support the nation.”
Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota have already reached out to NVAHI for best practices information. Ohio and Florida are interested in the VBM model, McReynolds notes. NVAHI is supporting other states that are leveraging aspects of VBM: New York and New Jersey recently expanded some aspects of vote by mail to apply to upcoming elections;, Virginia permanently became a “no excuse state” for requesting absentee ballots after registration; and while Maryland governor Larry Hogan allowed some expanded VBM during the spring primaries, he currently is not allowing it for the November general election.
McReynolds believes that two particular aspects of VBM are critical to its long-term success: a one-step process for obtaining a ballot, in which ballots are mailed automatically to voters, rather than the two-step process that requires voters to first apply to have a ballot sent; and a ballot tracking system like the aforementioned BallotTRACE.
Despite all its advantages, McReynolds acknowledges that voting by mail has its vulnerabilities. She notes that mail delivery is not uniform across the country, especially in Native American communities that may not have street addresses. When voting at home, security can be an issue if family members or others coerce a certain vote. And vote counting can be slow after a vote-by-mail election in a state not yet equipped for widespread, no-excuse absentee balloting.
We have to make sure there are systems in place to cover every aspect of the voting process, McReynolds says. In particular, she would like to see the end of partisanship that is manipulated to force one outcome or another during elections. “We need to put voters first and ensure they have a good experience,” she explains, “and campaigning has to be separated from the institution of voting itself. We have to make sure election policies and procedures are centered around who can vote and not who wins.”
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Amber McReynolds, telephone interview with Mary Jane Gore, Apr 22, 2020
Ellen Moorhouse, RepresentUs, telephone interview with Mary Jane Gore, May 6, 2020
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