President Donald Trump is floating the idea of postponing the election because by-mail voting would make it “the most inaccurate and fraudulent in history.” Earlier this year he said that if states convert to by-mail voting, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Republican Utah’s experience shows otherwise.
For example, the canvass of the June 30 primary found 66.9% of active GOP voters cast ballots — nearly double the 37.6% Republican primary turnout in 2012 before voting by mail. And turnout overall in the election set a record, with around 560,000 ballots cast. (Some of this year’s increase came because of a tight, four-way GOP race for governor).
“Voting by mail works really well in Utah,” says Justin Lee, state elections director for GOP Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “We have high turnout. We’ve had really minimal problems in the last few rounds.” About the only fraud reported was some parents voting for their children on missions for Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lee and other election officials say that Utah and the lessons it has learned might serve as a red state example for others looking to vote by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic. Before this year, Utah was one of just five states that voted primarily by mail, and the others all lean Democratic.
The main reason Utah officials favor vote by mail is that it boosts voter turnout.
“Two things drive turnout,” says Republican Davis County Clerk/Auditor Curtis Koch. “If you have a hot race and a popular candidate, that will increase turnout. The other is accessibility to the ballot. Voting by mail improves that.”
Utah mails out ballots three weeks before Election Day. “It helps people who are busy,” Koch says, who no longer have to try to squeeze in voting after work.
Republican Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch adds, “Weather doesn’t influence turnout when voting by mail, and neither does a pandemic.”
Koch says in 2012, before vote by mail began, locally popular Mitt Romney was the GOP presidential nominee, which helped drive turnout in Davis County to a record 77.23%.
In 2016, with by-mail voting, turnout was even higher in Davis County — 88.2% “even with no Mitt Romney,” Koch says, and with Trump generating far less GOP enthusiasm among voters.
The mail-in vote has broken turnout records in Weber County, Hatch says, noting that, “More people voted in our 2020 June primary than in the 2014 November general election.”
A 2018 Pantheon Analytics study found that vote by mail increased turnout by 5 to 7 percentage points in Utah.
The state ranked a low No. 44 among the states for turnout in 2014 and rose to No. 23 in 2018 after most counties switched to a by-mail vote, the biggest jump of any state, according to a study by Nonprofit Vote and the US Elections Project.
Republican Utah County Clerk-Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner noted turnout in the 2016 GOP primary, when it did not use vote by mail, was 39%. It swelled to 53% this year.
Longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, points to some city elections in the state’s population center where combined turnout jumped from 18.8% in 2011, the last time no local elections were conducted by mail, to 33.9% in the most recent municipal elections.
Voting by mail can eliminate long lines at polling places, enhancing safety for voters and poll workers, especially during a pandemic.
“People just don’t physically have to go to a polling location, which allows them to keep distance from other voters and often vote from the safety of their own home,” Lee says.
Hatch notes the difference during this year’s presidential primaries in Wisconsin without vote by mail and Utah, which used it.
“Wisconsin had long lines, voter disenfranchisement, infection of poll workers, and a lot of negative press across the country,” he says. But Utah “had no lines, record turnout, and barely made a blip in the national news, because nothing [bad] happened.”
Utah has, however, sometimes been blindsided with long lines by people who simply want to vote in person on Election Day out of tradition — such as in the 2016 presidential election when in-person voting took hours because so many people didn’t mail their ballots.
Hatch says a study by MIT professor Charles Stewart showed Utah had the longest lines in the nation that year for voting. Even so, he said, “85% of all Utah voters in 2016 didn’t wait in line for a single minute, because they voted by mail.”
Long lines for in-person voting “are fairly common when you first adopt vote by mail around the country,” says Gardner, Utah County’s clerk-auditor. The trick is to expect that and prepare for it.
Rozan Mitchell, deputy Utah County clerk for elections who implemented by-mail voting there and earlier in Salt Lake County, says her advice to officials in areas switching to mail-in voting is not to tell people they have a choice to vote in person, and to stress that option is for people who need to resolve ballot problems.
“We did ourselves a huge disservice in Utah,” she says, “saying we have vote by mail, but we’ll still have some voting locations on Election Day. So really, all people hear is ‘voting centers on Election Day’ and they show up.”
In-person voting was not widely available in the just-completed June 30 primary amid COVID-19 restrictions. Only seven of Utah’s 29 counties chose to have drive-up election day help centers, where voters could do such things as replace lost ballots or switch party registrations.
“We had less than 1% of the people in this primary vote ‘in person,’ and they really voted from their cars,” Lee says. “And we still had the best turnout we’ve had in a primary election.”
Utah officials say they have seen little voter fraud with a by-mail system, despite assertions by national Republicans that it is more risky. Local officials credit a system that matches the voter signature on every ballot envelope with those on file with county clerks.
Brian McKenzie, chief deputy Davis County clerk who oversees elections, says that since his area switched to by-mail voting in 2016, “We have found in all of the cases in which somebody else has signed or forged a voter’s signature, it has been done by a member of the same household.”
He adds, “In each of those cases, when we contact the voter, the voter informs us that they had given permission for that member of their household to sign. We explained to them that they can’t do that.”
“In fact, that’s a felony,” says Salt Lake County’s Swensen, who adds that she has seen essentially the same thing. She says it is often spouses signing for each other, or more commonly a parent signing for a child away at college or on a church mission.
Still, Hatch says that Weber County in 2018 “identified 18 people out of about 85,000 ballots cast who, in our opinion, blatantly attempted to vote twice. Our controls prevented each of them.”
Gardner says some people in Utah County occasionally claim their ballot was stolen and voted by someone else — until they are told their case is being referred to the FBI “and then they always change their story.”
However, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has said, like Trump, that voting by mail creates opportunity for fraud. She pointed to how a Nevada county clerk sent ballots not just to active voters, but also “inactive” ones. She said that put thousands of extra ballots in circulation that might be used illegally and urged ballots be sent only to voters who request them.
Republicans also argue that in a by-mail election in New Jersey this year, many residents said they never received ballots — but records indicate they voted. Utah officials say comparing signatures on ballot envelopes against those on file prevents accepting ballots from anyone but the legal voter.
Utah officials note that, by law, ballots here are automatically sent only to active voters. Nevertheless, “Extra ballots don’t pose extra risk,” Hatch says. “I could mail you 10 ballots, and you could return them all, plus try to vote in person. Our system would allow only the first ballot, the rest … would be rejected.”
He notes “return envelopes have unique IDs known only to our voter registration database” that permits counting only one ballot per voter. Also, “Ballots are printed on special paper and have unique characteristics that make it almost impossible to duplicate.”
County clerks add that a statewide database of voter registration helps catch and eliminate people who try to register in more than one county, and many counties belong to an organization that also helps check and catch duplication between states. They also constantly check the U.S. Postal Service’s change-of-address database and death records to update files.
Hatch says vote by mail actually helps clean up voter rolls and prevent fraud.
“On average, about 16% of voters move each year,” he says. “Vote by mail allows us to scrub our voter rolls every election to reduce extra ballots and unnecessary ballots.”
McDaniel, the national GOP chairwoman, complained about states like Utah that accept ballots by mail delivered after Election Day, arguing it might lead to efforts to encourage after-deadline voting.
However, Utah normally requires that ballots be postmarked before Election Day and counts them if they arrive afterward. Because of COVID-19, the Legislature changed the rules for this year’s primary to allow ballots to be postmarked on election day itself — and did not allow release of any early vote counts until after 10 p.m. to ensure they would not influence late voters.
Utah officials see no problem with potential fraud from the system here, but say it does lead to some people voting too late to have their ballot counted.
“[Some] people just don’t get the concept that they’ve got to get their ballot postmarked before Election Day,” Swensen says, adding Salt Lake County disqualified 908 ballots in 2018 for having late postmarks.
“People think that dropping it in their mailbox the day before will get a postmark on it,” she says, “but that’s not necessarily the case.”
Hatch says Weber County had 148 primary ballots returned in this year’s primary with a postmark that was after the deadline. “That’s 0.3% of ballots cast and is equivalent to us having to turn someone away who isn’t in line at a polling place when the polls close. Regardless of whether the deadline is the day before, or election day, many voters will wait until the last minute.”
Koch says Davis County had about 280 ballots arrive a day after the June 30 primary, “and about 240 of them were postmarked too late.” In Utah County, Gardner says, 500 ballots were postmarked too late in this year’s primary.
Eighteen of Utah 27 counties do not prepay postage for ballots, meaning voters are asked to pay 55 cents for their own stamps. Swensen says Salt Lake County does pay postage mostly because that facilitates getting ballot back sooner, especially if they do not have a stamp handy.
Gardner says Utah County also prepays postage but notes that the U.S. Postal Service, by federal law, will deliver ballots that have not been stamped — and charge it to counties anyway.
Some legislators and the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that not prepaying for postage suppresses voting by leading those who cannot afford it not to bother — not knowing the Postal Service will deliver ballots anyway.
Lee says he is not sure prepaying postage makes much of a difference, noting the state has not seen much difference in turnout between counties that pay for it and those that do not.
One drawback of waiting for ballots to trickle in by mail is that it can delay results. In this year’s primary, the Legislature prevented release of any results until 10 p.m. to ensure it would not influence any late voters. Many votes also arrive by mail days later, making it hard to call close elections — and nationally it could delay declaring a winner in a presidential election.
“It was a bigger deal when we started doing vote by mail,” Lee says. “Now that we’ve done it for a few cycles, I think we’re all fairly used to it.”
Hatch says most counties include 80% to 90% of the eventual total in their election night counts, which is less than the 95% from traditional voting. But he says it still is “a hugely statistically representative sample of the full election” that shows how most races will go.
None of the major election contests reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune changed results from the election night count in the recent primary election despite several close races.
Utah’s counties have had numerous high-profile problems with sending the wrong by-mail ballots to some places. They can be tougher to fix than with in-person voting, where it is easier to grab the right ballot quickly or to reprogram machines.
Some examples: Utah County sent 68,000 ballots in a 2017 GOP congressional primary to unaffiliated voters who were ineligible to participate; residents in the towns of Hatch and Boulder received each other’s ballots in a primary; and Panguitch and Escalante voters in Garfield County did not receive ballots until the day before they had to be mailed back last year.
Officials say the glitches generally were fixed in time, or that alternative in-person voting was offered. The contractors blamed for some of the problems were fired.
However, State Auditor John Dougall says about a dozen votes from improperly sent ballots in Wasatch County were counted in a congressional primary, but he found that did not change the outcome of any races.
“Some counties have messed up fairly badly,” Lee says. “It’s never been that widespread, and I think things are getting better.”
Gardner says that Utah County, before she took office, “was known for making mistakes over and over.” Gov. Gary Herbert lashed out at the county as “the epicenter of dysfunction” after the 2018 election. Gardner, who was elected in 2018, blames the history of vote-related botches on not establishing good processes, which she says have been fixed. She adds problems didn’t come from vote by mail and would have been trouble with traditional voting.
Vote by mail does allow time to fix some errors by individuals. Lost ballots or mistakes in marking them can be remedied by calling for a replacement to be sent, or by visiting an election day voting center.
For errors like forgetting to sign a ballot envelope, county clerks try to contact voters to come to their office to fix it — up to the end of the canvass.
Especially on Native American reservations, some homes have no street addresses. So voting by mail can be tough there.
“It’s been a problem, particularly in San Juan County,” Lee says, where Navajos and other residents have been in court battles over fair voting practices and districts.
“If someone doesn’t have a really good address or they don’t have reliable mail service, some accommodations need to be made,” Lee says. “That’s one of the reasons San Juan County has in-person voting and early voting required.”
San Juan County Clerk-Auditor John David Nielson says, however, that his county sends mail to post office box numbers provided by voters, and that seems to be working well. “The only way a lot of folks in the county get their mail is in a post office box.”
He adds that the county and other groups are working with Google Plus to create geographic codes using satellite maps to act as addresses to ensure residents are placed in proper political districts.
Utah officials say that the advantages outweigh the problems with voting by mail.
“I can say we have safe and secure elections,” Koch says, “‘regardless of whatever the political dialogue is out in the public today.”
Hatch adds, “Voters love the convenience [of vote by mail], especially older voters, voters with busy schedules, voters with disabilities, and voters who commute/travel a lot.”
For her part, Gardner says, “it’s a great opportunity to get as many people voting as possible. Voters who have a right to vote should be given the opportunity, and this has done that.”
Editor’s note • This story was supported with a grant from Solutions Journalism.