Robert Gehrke: Vote by mail isn’t nearly as scary as coronavirus. Just ask us Utahns.

A worker hands out disinfectant wipes and pens as voters line up outside Riverside High School for Wisconsin's primary election Tuesday April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“This is ridiculous.”

That was the sign one voter held in the now-famous photo of Wisconsinites standing in line, many of them for hours, wearing masks, trying to social distance, all so they could exercise their fundamental right to vote.

It didn’t have to be this way. There was no urgency to the Wisconsin primary, no imminent harm and no impending danger to postponing the election — certainly nothing that compares to the risk of a pandemic.

Imagine elderly Wisconsin voters or those with a compromised immune system having to choose between endangering their lives and giving up their voice. Thanks to the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme courts, viable alternatives were taken off the table and that was the choice they were left with.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is leading Utah’s coronavirus task force and oversees this state’s elections office (although he has recused himself while he runs for governor), shared our collective disbelief.

"I watched with horror what was happening in Wisconsin,” Cox said Wednesday in a video town hall with the Emerging Leaders Initiative. “I thought it was just a travesty and huge mistake and something we don’t want to see happen here in Utah."

Robert Gehrke

With primaries scheduled across the country this summer and the potential that a lingering pandemic could disrupt the November elections, it’s crucial that we don’t impose a repeat of the Wisconsin death experiment.

The good news is that Utah voters won’t have to take any risk in order to vote — and there’s no reason any others should have to, either.

That’s because Utah — like Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have taken the lead on mail-in voting, a practice now gaining attention nationally as we grapple with how to reconcile democracy and disease.

Utahns have experienced first-hand the benefits of mail-in voting — it is convenient and that increases voter turnout. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump (who, by the way, voted by mail in Florida’s recent primary election and in New York in the 2018 midterm) sees another Democratic conspiracy.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump wrote on Twitter recently. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

“You'd never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said last week on Fox News.

First and foremost, there is no proof of any voter fraud. A panel that Trump created with the mission of ferreting out the millions of fraudulent ballots cast disbanded without finding any evidence of a substantial problem. The only problem Utah has experienced involves the presumably well-intentioned parents of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returning ballots for their children abroad.

Beyond that, though, there seems to be a fundamental philosophical divide between those who think voting should be as painless as possible for anyone who is eligible to cast a ballot, and people like the president who believe the rules should be rigged to benefit him or his party.

The system should make it easy for eligible voters to vote, no matter the candidate or party that benefits. If outcomes are decided by what obstacles are in place, your elections are illegitimate.

Voting by mail does increase turnout, and here’s proof based on one case in Utah: In 2016, Utah gave counties the option of adopting vote-by-mail and 21 of them did. State House District 69 includes two districts that did go the mail-in route — Duchesne and Grand — and two that didn’t — Carbon and Emery.

That 2016 contest was a presidential election, so all four counties saw more votes cast than in the 2014 midterms, but the increase in the two counties with mail-in voting was 15% higher than the two that didn’t have it.

For what it’s worth, that increase in mail-in voting came in Republican counties and likely helped move the seat from the Democratic incumbent to the Republican challenger in that close race.

That same year, the town of Suncrest, which straddles counties, saw 18% higher turnout among residents who lived in mail-in voting areas than those who did not. Statewide, the counties with mail-in voting had turnout rates that were 9% higher than those with traditional voting.

“We’ve certainly seen over the years that turnout goes up for smaller turnout elections — primary elections, municipal elections,” Justin Lee, the state elections director, told me Wednesday. About 90% of Utah voters now cast their ballots by mail or at drop boxes, so “the vast, vast majority have caught on and are using it.”

So, voting by mail serves what should be our democratic aims and now, in the age of COVID, keeps people relatively safe, but there are still a few additional steps we can — and should — take to increase safety.

Cox mentioned that Davis County may replace in-person Election Day voting with drive-up voting, which protects poll workers. Lawmakers are discussing changing Utah law to require voters to register remotely, rather than in-person and how to potentially accommodate Election Day registration.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order allowing people to sign candidate petitions without face-to-face contact — a system that seems to have worked and should continue after the virus subsides. And Cox said the law may also need to be changed to allow ballots to be quarantined to ensure there is no viral contamination on them.

Also, we really need to figure out a way to get people “I Voted” stickers. But that may not be a top priority right now.

What should be our top priority is ensuring that we find a way to reconcile flattening the COVID curve while preserving our democracy. Utah, to its credit, has shown how it can be done. Let’s hope the rest of the nation follows suit.