The Colorado state Senate on Thursday passed legislation requiring the state to conduct its elections entirely by absentee ballot. The party-line vote, and Gov. John Hickenlooper's likely signature, means Colorado will become the third state, alongside Washington and Oregon, to hold elections entirely by mail.
I've been a little obsessed with this bill since it passed the state House last week, and here's why: It exposes, and exacerbates, the largest structural advantage Democrats hold over Republicans.
From an academic standpoint, the new system shouldn't make much of a difference. Chelsea Brossard, the research director at the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College, says there's no academic research that shows higher levels of early voting, whether in person or through the mail, benefits one party over the other.
But from a campaign management standpoint, all-mail elections will benefit Colorado Democrats, at least in the short run. "What research has been done indicates that these methods benefit better organized (and funded) campaigns because of the longer mobilization time required," Brossard told me.
And that's the rub: Since 1996, when Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden's campaign created a program that sought to actively signed voters up for absentee ballots, then tracked whether likely Wyden voters had actually cast their ballots, Democrats have had an advantage in early voting turnout. Republicans simply haven't invested the time or resources necessary to catch up.
It's not that Republicans don't recognize they're lagging. In their report, the five members of the Growth and Opportunity Project -- the post-mortem commissioned by the Republican National Committee -- said as much. "This trend in early, absentee and online voting is here to stay," they wrote. "Republicans must alter their strategy and acknowledge the trend as future reality, utilizing new tactics to gain victory on Election Day."
The report recommends working with state parties and national committees to design and fund "an aggressive early voting and absentee effort for target races in 2013." And outside groups like the organizations attached to the Koch brothers have been racing to build the kinds of databases that can track absentee voters at the same levels Democratic technology has achieved.
Republicans argue publicly that absentee-only elections will lead to increased opportunity for fraud (Though that hasn't been the case in Oregon or Washington; Republicans will cite the razor-thin 2004 gubernatorial election that sent Democrat Christine Gregoire to the governor's office, but Washington wasn't conducting its elections by mail at that point). But the real reason the GOP is concerned by the Colorado bill is that it amplifies the advantage Democrats already enjoy.
All-mail voting will be a reality in Colorado. Republicans should see the glass as half full and use that fact as an incentive to get their absentee program up to speed even faster.