Meet the Leading Lady of Vote-by-Mail
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This hard-charging single mom of two is offering a solution to pandemic-addled election systems.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Amber McReynolds built Denver’s pioneering vote-by-mail program and is now a go-to consultant for states searching for new answers amid the pandemic.
- The issue is a partisan football, with Democrats wanting to expand vote-by-mail and Republicans concerned.
Being in the business of reforming America’s elections, Amber McReynolds has always been busy, jetting from city to city before flying back to her home in Denver to tuck her two elementary schoolchildren in at night.
Now that the coronavirus has grounded her — and the rest of the world — the reformer packs 12-hour days with teleconferences that carry increasing urgency as America figures out how to stage an election this fall. Her organization, Vote at Home, has become a favorite consultant to secretaries of state across the country. “Amber has not merely advocated for expanding vote-by-mail, she has the firsthand experience successfully implementing a system that put voters first, while balancing security and access,” says Alex Padilla, the California Secretary of State, by email, crediting her work in Denver as influencing California’s vote-by-mail policy.
Plenty more officials are following Padilla’s footsteps. “The pandemic has exposed the significant vulnerabilities that exist in the in-person voting process. And there is urgency right now to get this figured out,” says McReynolds, 41. But a consequential question remains: Is it just going to be a temporary change, or is this something voters choose long term?
For McReynolds, the solution to electoral turmoil is a practical combination of delivering ballots to people’s doors and allowing them to be returned by mail or in person.
After all, U.S. voters already had significant distrust in their election system, exacerbated by Russian interference in the 2016 election. With many people forced to work from home, the idea of also voting from home hardly seems novel. And for McReynolds, the solution to electoral turmoil is a practical combination of delivering ballots to people’s doors and allowing them to be returned by mail or in person.
Already a number of states — including Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii — have adopted this fully remote election system. Those states also are among the nation’s leaders in voter turnout. In 2018, a full 69 percent of all votes cast in Western states were from mailed-out ballots — in states across the political spectrum.
Some states are considering other forms of remote voting down the line, including voting online through a secure server or voting by phone through an encrypted app. Such measures are already in place in West Virginia and Delaware, although they are targeted for those with disabilities, overseas residents and military voters. New Jersey tentatively joined those two on May 12, allowing certain residents to use the app Democracy Live in its municipal, school-board and special elections. McReynolds says states still need more testing to make those systems “stronger before it would ever be ready for widespread use.”
Still, states are resistant to change, and have been notably stubborn about implementing these types of policies. In April, Wisconsin continued its in-person primary despite coronavirus concerns — and some studies indicate a corresponding rise in virus cases afterward. Yet liberal state supreme court candidate Jill Karofsky’s success with absentee ballots in that race only affirmed Republican fears that the practice hurts them.
But comprehensive research has shown no partisan advantage for expanding mail balloting (and documented voter fraud is extremely rare). In addition, Republicans triumphed decisively in a California special election in May, reclaiming a U.S. House seat from Democrats in a mostly mail-in election.
McReynolds, who describes herself as a political “independent,” says her desire for change isn’t driven by partisan goals but from a fascination with innovating the world around her. Growing up in the small Illinois town of Kewanee, her dad was a criminal defense attorney who would later become a judge. An early childhood memory of hers is watching the buttoned-up lawyer get down on his knees and stand on his head in their front yard. “Why do you do that?” she asked, and he responded: “Don’t you want to look at the world differently?”
As a young staffer in the Denver elections office, she filled her journal with ways to make voting easier for her constituents … even if it seemed unlikely she would get a chance to implement them. That changed after a 2006 election rife with long lines and poorly implemented technology forced a shake-up. By 2011 she was Denver’s director of elections, helping write Colorado’s reforms as it became a national leader in all-mail elections.
She left the Denver elections office in mid-2018 to start Vote at Home and write When Women Vote, a handbook to election reform published in January. And when she describes how government should work with voters, she often adopts a business mindset. “Customers are telling us something through data — through their calls, emails, complaints, compliments, they are telling us a story,” McReynolds says. The question now is whether America’s election-runners can deliver.