Heavily Republican Utah likes voting by mail, but national GOP declares war on it

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A voter drops her ballot at an official ballot drop box on Nov. 8, 2016.

Heavily Republican Utah is one of just five states that for years have voted primarily by mail (the others lean Democratic), and leaders here say it increases turnout by making voting easier.

But national GOP leaders denounced the practice Monday as part of a Democratic plot to use coronavirus scares to alter elections in ways that could increase fraud.

They vowed to fight voting by mail and other election proposals they dislike with a $20 million legal fund.

“A national vote-by-mail system would open the door to a new set of problems, such as potential election fraud,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the niece of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. “At this time of uncertainty, we need to have faith in our election process.”

That comes after President Donald Trump has vigorously attacked voting by mail. “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump told Fox News last month.

McDaniel and other GOP officials used a conference call Monday to reporters to outline problems they see with voting by mail, a system their Utah Republican colleagues have long praised.

They complained that a Nevada county clerk sent ballots not only to active voters, but also “inactive voters” — who either had not voted in several elections or whom the U.S. Postal Service reported as likely moved — causing thousands of unused ballots to be in circulation. (Utah and other states voting primarily by mail send ballots only to active voters.)

“That obviously leaves room for fraud,” McDaniel said.

(Matias J. Ocner | Miami Herald via AP file photo) Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, speaks during the RNC winter meeting at the Trump National Doral Resort on Jan. 24, 2020.

She said, “If voters want to vote by mail, absentee ballots should be requested by the voter and not automatically sent by the state to every voter on the registration rolls” — to decrease potential by fraud with extra ballots.

McDaniel also said fraud could come if states accept ballots after Election Day — which Utah does, as long as they were postmarked before that day. Utah also verifies signatures on ballots to help ensure the proper person voted.

“Receiving ballots after Election Day allows losing candidates to go find enough late votes to change the outcome,” McDaniel said.Any system that allows late-arriving ballots is ripe for weeks of prolonged litigation, which undermines the confidence and legitimacy of the election.”

McDaniel said not enough time exists to set up reliable vote-by-mail systems this year in states that have not used them previously. She worried it could also lead to allowing in some states party volunteers to collect ballots in places such as nursing homes to submit them en masse.

“It also doesn’t give voters who may not want to vote by mail the opportunity to vote in person,” she said. “We have many voters who don’t want to vote by mail. They don’t trust that. So they need to have that in-person option.”

Utah normally also allows people to vote in person at Election Day voting centers. But for the June 30 primary, the Legislature enacted a law that will allow only voting by mail or at drive-up voting centers where ballots may be dropped off. Procedures for the Nov. 3 general election are yet to be finalized.

Utah officials for years have praised voting by mail and said they have seen it cause no extra fraud.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is the state’s top election official, has said the only problem Utah has seen is with presumably well-intentioned parents of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trying to vote ballots for their children serving abroad — which was caught by verifying signatures.

Cox also credited voting by mail as a key reason for Utah setting a record for votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. In that year, 21 of Utah’s 29 counties voted primarily by mail. The turnout in the 21 counties that used it was all higher than in the eight that did not, and all counties have since chosen to switch to vote by mail.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox listens during the official canvass of votes for the 2018 election on Nov. 26, 2018.

Similarly, in a special congressional GOP primary in 2017, five of seven counties in the 3rd Congressional District voted by mail — and each of them had higher turnout than the two that did not.

Cox has said that by-mail voting also appeared to improve voter education “because they actually have the ballot, and they have the opportunity to research what is on the ballot — instead of just getting in the ballot booth and finding out there are three constitutional amendments they had never heard of.”

This year, Cox also criticized videos of Wisconsin voters standing in long lines risking their lives during the coronavirus outbreak to vote. "I watched with horror what was happening in Wisconsin,” Cox said 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" with voting by mail.

Democratic Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen on Monday also praised voting by mail and the increased turnout she says resulted from it.

“In the 2018 general election, we had almost 80% turnout in a midterm election. You would not see that kind of voter participation with the traditional polling places where people had to go on a certain day between certain hours,” she said. “Definitely we’ve seen an increase in voter turnout with the convenience of vote by mail.”