This has been a nerve-wracking year to administer an election. As technological difficulties plagued the Iowa caucus in January, and then a pandemic led to postponed primaries and election meltdowns in Wisconsin and elsewhere, I watched crestfallen officials try and explain disasters live on cable news and issued a silent prayer. Please don’t let that be me.
I’m the chair of the Kansas Democratic Party and our primary was set for May 2. While other states scrambled, or faced confusion and costly litigation as they tried to change their in-person voting plans in the face of a public health crisis, we took a deep breath and stayed almost entirely on track.
We hadn’t prepared for a pandemic as we designed a new primary to replace our old caucus. Our caucus system excluded people who couldn’t vote in a specific place at a specific time. We were determined to create a system that maximized turnout and put voters first. We wanted it to be easy for everyone to participate, so we prioritized voting by mail, with a ranked choice ballot.
It worked: Our turnout soared from 8 percent in 2016 to 38 percent in 2020. We went from fewer than 40,000 ballots being cast, to almost 150,000 this year. Just as importantly, our structure worked too. The Kansas primary was able to go off as planned. Because we moved to the mail and sent every registered Democrat a ballot, we did not have the horror shows of Wisconsin and Georgia, where Americans watched in disbelief as voters wearing masks waited hours to cast their ballot, forced to risk catching a deadly virus simply to exercise their civic voice.
The presidential election is less than four months away. If the spring primaries were a dress rehearsal for November—when turnout could be three times higher and the pandemic joined by a deadly seasonal flu—much work clearly remains. And like it or not, the race for 2024 will begin on November 4, and there could be nominating contests on both sides.
We need to learn from the states that have successfully mounted elections during a pandemic as we prepare for the races to come. Here are a few lessons from how we shifted our caucus to a mail-in primary with ranked choice voting—and pandemic-proofed our contest in the process.
1. Make it easy for people to participate
We quickly realized that if you were designing an election from the ground up right now, you’d start with voting by mail. It opens up more access and opportunity to everybody. We also wanted to recreate the feeling of a caucus, where if your candidate doesn’t reach the viability level to earn delegates, you can still support another candidate. That was an easy decision as well: ranked choice voting, which allows everyone to place candidates in order of preference. If their candidate fell short, their vote would still count for their next favorite.
We wanted to maintain in-person voting and planned to open a precinct in every state senate district that would also have same-day registration available. But when the pandemic struck and it was clear those locations—and poll workers—would not be available, it was easy to extend the mail-in deadline and shift to an entirely VBM election.
2. Early planning made it easy to pivot
I look at the states that have squandered these last four months of planning and training and fear for November. Everything we did required time and planning well in advance. Our ballots and envelopes, for example, were designed in January and February. We’d already made the decision, and budgeted, to send every registered Democrat a ballot. In some ways, it was lucky that we made the right decisions over many months. Other times, careful preparation makes you look lucky.
3. Mail everyone a ballot
No, really. Just mail everyone a ballot. Pay for postage too. Create the easiest scenario that shows people we want you to vote. Short-circuit all the fights other states had in court about postmarks and arrival dates. Make it easy on citizens and officials not to have to apply for a ballot and answer an extra round of mail. Just fill this out and send it back.
4. Use ranked choice voting
If you’re going to have an election predominantly via mail, ranked choice voting is a crucial piece. It brings more value to the ballot, considering that a voter doesn’t know how the field is going to change between the day they mail their vote and Election Day itself. We watched in Kansas as the Democratic field narrowed rapidly, and multiple candidates dropped out on the eve of Super Tuesday. Millions of Americans who voted by mail in those states, and later contests, basically had their vote wasted over a decision the voter had no control over. When a voter has the power to rank their second and third choice, for example, it’s like an insurance policy for a mail ballot—especially in early primary states.
5. Start counting early
We received 147,000 ballots. It took us three and a half days to process and count the votes. Our state had a shutdown policy in effect that said we couldn’t have more than 10 people working in person at once. So on the days before the deadline when the ballots came in fast and furious, we worked in two shifts to open the envelopes, pull out the ballot, and separate it from its secrecy sleeve. Our machines could scan 100 ballots at a time, so we stacked them in folders of 100. All of this takes longer than you think. There will be millions of mail-in ballots in some states this fall, and it makes me anxious looking at Michigan and Pennsylvania, for example, where officials can’t start the count until Election Day. They’re looking at a week’s worth of work, at the minimum, all of which could easily be started sooner. Even if you don’t tabulate results, it’s just smart to begin processing ballots as quickly as you can.
6. Voting by mail is safe, secure and a common-sense way to run an election—especially during a pandemic.
We prioritized security since the beginning of our planning process to ensure our election was a transparent and a true reflection of the preferences of Kansas voters. To ensure a fair election, we included signatures on our envelopes and bar-coded all envelopes so we could scan them upon return and be certain no one had voted twice. Kansas’s previous Secretary of State Kris Kobach disenfranchised nearly 30,000 Kansans with an illegal Proof of Citizenship law that intimidated voters, making them think their ballots would be discredited for many years. We had many people call us to confirm they followed the correct instructions and their ballot would be accepted. Whether in a federal or local election, Kansans take voting seriously.
The other beautiful thing about vote by mail: There’s a paper trail, and you can track any problems that might arise, and have genuine accountability on the other side.
7. This can be done
Kansas started from scratch. We built our election center with a very small staff. Anytime they say, “Oh, it can’t be done,”—yes, it can. If you want to. You really have to start with the idea that you’re going to make voting as accessible as you can. My worry is that’s not the idea that all our leaders have. It needs to be, if we’re going to have elections where everyone has faith in the results.