Not long after Wyoming Democrats wrapped up our caucus process, I received a message from an older voter in the central part of the state. Despite being a lifelong Democratic voter, 2020 was the first year in which she participated in the presidential preference caucus. During prior elections, something had always prevented her from being able to attend the live event, or she forgot to mark the date on the calendar. And, some years, she just wasn’t up to standing around in a crowd all morning.
For her, voting by mail made the difference. Suddenly, caucusing became more accessible, efficient and uncomplicated. Having the ballot arrive in her mailbox meant that she wasn’t going to feel rushed, could take time to consider the candidates and, most importantly, protect her health.
Judging by our results, a lot of other folks felt the same way.
In previous years — even when a contentious primary battle was taking place for the Democratic presidential nomination — the participation rate in the Wyoming Caucus never rose above 17 percent. And that’s a liberal estimate (no pun intended). This year, in 2020, that participation rate grew to just under 40 percent. In-person caucuses are fun, loud and exciting events — but it turns out they can’t compete with voting by mail when it comes to increasing turnout.
Truth be told, this wasn’t our original plan. Back in 2019, which now feels like several decades ago, the Wyoming Democratic Party put together a plan that included a vote-by-mail component. We intended to have the in-person event, improved with early voting drop-off locations, and the mail-in method—then came coronavirus. It turned out that having the vote-by-mail option was rather fortuitous. By extending a few deadlines and changing marketing materials, we were able to make a smooth transition to a 100 percent by-mail election.
A global pandemic necessitated the change, but as it turned out, it was something we should have planned from the very beginning.
In the not too distant future, Wyoming voters will be heading to the polls. What’s that going to look like — how will it function — in the age of COVID-19? Frankly, we don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like, let alone four or six months from now. What we do know is that we have a responsibility to protect the vote and preserve public health. For those reasons, vote by mail makes sense for Wyoming.
Does it come with issues? Sure. I’d miss the camaraderie of heading to my polling location and exercising my right alongside neighbors and friends. More problematic is that it will require an audit of every mailing address on file for every voter. That’s an issue we ran into more than once during our VBM process. Your mailing address doesn’t always change along with your voting address. As an example, a woman in Cheyenne called to let us know she didn’t receive a ballot. A quick check revealed it was sent to Virginia — at an address she hadn’t used since the mid-1990s while working in the federal government.
But that, and all the other issues, can be addressed and sorted out.
The process comes with benefits, too, in addition to protecting health. Voter participation will likely increase. Elections will be less expensive for the state and county governments. Heck, it’ll even help the post office.
But don’t take my word for it — ask the United States Military. Servicemembers have been voting by mail for years. Or ask Oregon, Washington, Utah, Hawaii or Colorado; a mix of red, blue and purple states that have seen incredible outcomes as a result of changing their process.
At the end of the day, maybe as was the case for the Wyoming Democratic Party, the state will discover that this isn’t just a good idea during a public health crisis, but probably makes sense for democracy.
Joe M. Barbuto is the Chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
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