Democracy Decoded: Season 2, Episode 3 Transcript

What If I Can't Vote in Person?

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Simone Leeper: Rey Valenzuela has been a civil servant in Arizona for a long time.

Rey Valenzuela: This was a summer job from Arizona State University. "Hey, you want to come help work, make a little bit of money as a college student?" And it actually landed me towards a career path that I didn't think I ever would consider.

Leeper: That career path was working in county elections offices in Arizona. These are the departments that manage polling centers, ballots, and count votes after an election. Ray is now the director of mail-in voting and election services for Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

Valenzuela: You really do have to have the heart of a civil servant, heart of a teacher. I let our staff know that they are all heroes, and for most part, they're unsung heroes. It's demystified once you come do it and know how valuable it is to the nation and democracy itself.

Leeper: That's how Rey has viewed his job for more than 30 years. He feels that he is defending democracy. Every day, when he goes to work, he immerses himself in the bureaucracy and details of keeping Arizona's vote-by-mail and election processes running smoothly. Also, people in Arizona can exercise their freedom to vote. But recently, for the first time in his career, Ray and his coworkers have started to face unprecedented harassment.

Valenzuela: We've built a barrier around our building that used to not be there prior to 2020, a fence. Then we have individuals that are putting ladders. Literally, you build a fence, they put ladders and they're filming, which is their first amendment right, but to a point of where when a temporary worker leaves to go get in their car, they're chasing them down, filming them, filming their license plate, and it's just a lot of intimidation.

Leeper: Where do these criticisms of election workers in vote-by-mail come from? And how can we instill more trust in our electoral process?

I'm Simone Leeper, and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. We use this show to explore questions, like, why does American democracy look the way it does today? And how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve? This season, we are talking about voting access, and on today's episode, we're going to focus specifically on vote-by-mail, or absentee voting as it's called in some states,

Vote-by-mail has existed for 150 years, but its popularity has been rising steadily in recent years and exploded during the 2020 election. That election took place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And vote-by-mail offered voters a secure way to vote that didn't put their health at risk. During the 2018 general election, about 27% of voters cast their ballot by mail. During the 2020 primaries, that number grew to a little over 50% of voters casting their ballot by mail. But even as millions of Americans opted for this tried and true method of voting, some politicians began attacking it.

Donald Trump: They're sending millions of ballots all over the country.

Leeper: That, of course, is former President Donald Trump during a presidential debate in September 2020 when he was running for reelection. He spent a lot of his campaign casting doubt on vote-by-mail, even as states and counties across the country expanded access to it so that voters could safely vote from home and avoid catching COVID-19. While vote-by-mail is not a new method of voting, many Americans used it for the first time in 2020. Today, we want to shed some light on the vote-by-mail system in the US. How does it work? Who does it serve? And how do election officials ensure all those mailed in ballots are counted accurately?

Vote-by-mail was first developed for active duty military. It started in the Civil War for soldiers who would be away from local precincts during elections. In the late 1800s, states also started passing laws so people who were seriously ill or traveling on election day could vote-by-mail as well. That's what vote-by-mail looked like for almost 100 years. During World War II, it was expanded for similar reasons, to include overseas soldiers in elections. Then, in the 1980s, California was the first state that allowed voters to vote-by-mail for any reason.

Jonathan Diaz: Mail voting has been available in certain parts of the country for decades.

Leeper: That's Jonathan Diaz, senior legal counsel for voting rights at Campaign Legal Center.

Diaz: States like Colorado, and Washington, and Utah have been predominantly mail voting states for many years. In states with older populations, it's especially popular, places like Florida and Arizona. Arizonans voted by mail at rates of around 70% even before the pandemic, and so, it has been a popular and secure method of casting a ballot for a long time.

Leeper: In places that offer mail voting, it makes casting a ballot more convenient and accessible for voters.

Diaz: They're called mail ballots because they're mailed to the voter, not necessarily because the voter mails them back. In many jurisdictions, election officials maintain drop boxes where you can go and drop it off at your convenience. You can also go in-person to your local elections office and physically hand the ballot to an election worker.

Leeper: Jonathan says this is a very convenient option for voters, especially during elections with lots of races on the ballot. Voters won't feel rushed like they might at the polling place.

Diaz: When you're voting on school board members or local judges or county offices that don't get the same kind of attention that a member of Congress or a senator or a presidential candidate will, being able to fill out my ballot at home makes it a lot easier to make informed choices.

Leeper: Besides convenience, mail voting is also crucial for another population of voters, those with disabilities.

Michelle Bishop: My name is Michelle Bishop and I am the Voter Access and Engagement Manager at the National Disability Rights Network.

Leeper: Michelle estimates there are 40 million voters with disabilities in the US.

Bishop: We can say with confidence that people with disabilities are a much larger segment of the population than I think most people realize, and the census will tell you there were maybe one in five of the total population.

Leeper: These include chronic physical and mental impairments, which could make voting difficult. Michelle says voters with physical disabilities often face obstacles around in-person voting, since less than half of the polling places in the US are physically accessible to someone with a disability.

Bishop: There are inaccessible parking places, paths of travel, ramps that are dangerous, doors that are too heavy to open, polling places that are down a flight stairs and there's no elevator. Not everyone is going to be able to go into their polling place and pick up a pen and a piece of paper, and read it, and mark it, and put it into the scanner or mail it back or what have you.

Leeper: While some states have widespread mail-in voting, many states still only allow those serving in the military, who are sick, or out of town, or have some other permissible "excuse" to vote by mail. Michelle says, "Making vote-by-mail more readily accessible is crucial for the civil rights of voters with disabilities."

Bishop: We didn't just wake up one day and say, "Let's add these voting systems to how we vote so we can just make it more expensive and more complicated just for fun." We did it because the civil rights of some voters were not being honored and respected in the way that we've traditionally run our elections. So use of some of these newer technologies is critical for making voting more accessible.

Leeper: Like I mentioned earlier, vote-by-mail became much more popular in the 2020 presidential election. Some states that didn't normally allow it for widespread use made it available so voters could avoid getting COVID-19.

Bishop: It was probably one of the more accessible elections we've ever seen.

Leeper: And not just because of expanded vote-by-mail. There was also curbside voting, drive-through voting, and longer windows for early voting. Voters had more options over a long period of time. Here's Jonathan Diaz from Campaign Legal Center again.

Diaz: And I think people in states where those methods were not as popular before realized that having greater access to vote-by-mail and early voting, more opportunities, more convenient times and places to be able to vote is really great. It makes it a lot easier for people to cast ballots, especially when they have busy lives, multiple jobs, kids, grandparents to take care of.

Leeper: And having more access to voting translated to record breaking voter turnout.

WBUR Clip: Meanwhile, in Georgia, voters turned down in record numbers for the first day of early voting, but some faced hours and long lines at the polls and technical issues in a state that has been plagued by barriers to voting, particularly for Black residents.

Leeper: That's news coverage of early voting in 2020 from WBUR's Here & Now. More people voted in the 2020 presidential election than ever before, even with the pandemic going on. However, although many states changed their laws to expand voting access for that election, it didn't always stick. The attitude around mail-in voting before the 2020 election was pretty neutral.

Diaz: Historically, mail voting was not a partisan issue. That completely changed in the 2020 election. So since the 2020 election, we've seen a real backlash to mail voting access.

Leeper: Partisan politicians and states across the country latched onto skepticism about vote-by-mail to pass laws that restricted access to this method of voting. In the year after the 2020 presidential election, nine states passed new laws that limited voting access. Those include, bear with me, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and Texas.

Diaz: During the pandemic, Texas limited the number of drop boxes that were available to one per county.

Leeper: Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, announced this change to drop box availability one month before the election.

Diaz: Texas has 254 counties, some of which are very, very small, some of which are huge. Harris County, which is where the city of Houston is, has more people in it than 25 states. So imagine a county of millions being limited to exactly one drop box. It was going to make voting harder and less safe for the people in that state. And so, we brought a lawsuit challenging that limitation on the number of drop boxes per county.

Leeper: And Jonathan says CLC has continued to file lawsuits challenging new anti voter laws that restrict the freedom to vote.

Diaz: Since 2020, states have continued to try and limit access to vote-by-mail. One of the ways that they've done so is by passing laws that restrict the ability of civic organizations and community groups to distribute absentee ballot applications.

Leeper: One state that has passed new voting laws is Georgia. In 2021, the state legislature passed a large elections bill called SB202.

Diaz: It covered lots of different aspects of the voting and elections process, including limitations on handing out food and water to voters waiting in line at polling places, changes to the way that the legislature can exercise control over both state and local boards of elections, and limitations on the distribution of absentee ballot applications by non-government entities.

Leeper: The bill also sets up a bit of bureaucracy that has the potential to confuse voters. Non-government or non-profit groups often hand out mail-in ballot applications in an attempt to get out the vote. The bill says these groups need to include a disclaimer on these applications, that they are not official government forms, even though the ballot application is the exact ballot application the state issues.

Diaz: These restrictions make sending absentee ballot applications to eligible voters significantly less effective. It makes voters less likely to use them, and it really hamstrings the work of civic engagement organizations who sent millions of these applications to Georgia voters in 2020.

Leeper: That's why CLC sued Georgia's Secretary of State, to challenge the law and fight for civic engagement group's ability to communicate with and assist voters who want to vote by mail. Jonathan says fighting these changes to election law is important because many voters rely on non-government groups to understand the process.

Diaz: For a lot of voters prior to the pandemic, they had never voted by mail before. These civic engagement organizations provide a really critical function and play a really important role in our democracy by making it easier for voters who may lack information or lack the time to figure these things out, by making it really easy for them to request an absentee ballot, by making sure that they know that voting by mail is an option that's available to them, and by making it as easy for them as possible. For voters who maybe don't have reliable internet access or lack access to a printer, they can't just go online to the Secretary of State's website and download the form and print it out.

Leeper: So voting by mail and other forms of voting outside of a polling place on election day are crucial and allow more people to vote. Now, let's review why that option is safe and secure. That brings us back to the office of Rey Valenzuela in Maricopa County. Vote-by-mail has been extremely popular in Arizona for years. 91% of the votes cast in Arizona in the 2020 presidential election were vote-by-mail ballots.

Valenzuela: And there are several checks and balances in place to ensure the safe, secure, and transparent process that mail balloting in Arizona is. First and foremost, only verified voters can get a ballot.

Leeper: He and his staff go through a lot of steps to verify each voter.

Valenzuela: You have to be a vetted, verified voter, which means you work your way back through voter registration process, and you had to have submitted a registration, proven citizenship. We vet that through several agencies, through our statewide database, through MBD, INS, vital statistics, see that you are still alive, all those things before we book you to the registration roles. And then we even do one more thing, which a lot of people think we're being altruistic and sending you a voter ID card saying, "Congratulations, you made it to roll." That's also testing your address.

Leeper: Rey says, voters can follow along in the process as well, which would make it very hard for someone to vote more than once.

Valenzuela: Just to get you a ballot, I have to send it to you verified, and you have to place it in this envelope that has that unique piece ID that is tracked by, both us and to add to the process transparency tracked by the voter. We have a very robust, what we call ballot status subscription service in Maricopa, where a voter could text to join this service. And it's going to tell them when the ballot's scheduled, when it's mailed, but more importantly, confidently for them when it's received by us.

Leeper: There are also strict rules around the ballot drop boxes in Arizona.

Valenzuela: The fact is you can't drop a loose ballot in that drop box. It must come sealed within that affidavit envelope with a signature that matches.

Leeper: In some states, including Arizona, voting looks different these days. Access to vote-by-mail or drop boxes are restricted. The windows of time to vote early or send in a ballot are shorter. And that's confusing for voters who during the 2020 presidential election got a taste of what expanded voting could be like. But Jonathan Diaz from Campaign Legal Center says It's not all bad news.

Diaz: Although some states have restricted access and in a backlash after the pandemic, others have made changes permanent to expand access to vote-by-mail because they recognized that their citizens really like, it increases turnout. And ultimately, that makes our democracy more representative because it allows more people to participate in the process.

Leeper: While Jonathan and other lawyers at CLC continue to fight for access to vote by mail and other options that voters find convenient, he recognizes the focus shouldn't solely be on these methods.

Diaz: What's important to remember that voting by mail is not a perfect option for everyone. For some voters, including those with certain disabilities or voters in rural communities, especially native communities that might lack residential street addresses or reliable access to mail, voting by mail is not going to be the best option. And so, having accessible vote-by-mail policies is great, but they need to be implemented in conjunction with robust, early in-person voting to make sure that every voter, regardless of their circumstance, has the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

Leeper: On the next episode of Democracy Decoded, we talk about in-person voting and how it can better serve all voters.

Special thanks to Ray Valenzuela, Jonathan Diaz, and Michelle Bishop for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes along with a full transcript of the show.

Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at

Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, legal counsel on the redistricting team. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia strategist, and Mannal Haddad, Senior Communications Manager for Voting Rights and Redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Claire McInerny, edited by Paulina Velasco, and mixed by Florence Barrau-Adams.

Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at