Sen. Mike Lee so dislikes the Democrats’ election reform bill that he doesn’t mince words, going so far as to say it was “written in hell by the devil himself.”
At this stage, no Republican backs the effort, even as Senate Democrats took steps this past week to move S1 toward a climactic vote.
Much of the politics surrounding the measure is wrapped up in the presidential election and how these changes may swing the swing states that determine who sits in the White House. Lee, R-Utah, for instance, considers it a partisan move that would benefit Democrats and take power from states.
But if this bill actually became law, how much would it change elections in Utah?
Not as much as you might think.
Through the years, the Beehive State has been at the vanguard of election reforms meant to make it easier for people to cast a ballot.
“I feel like we are the gold standard,” Utah Elections Director Justin Lee said.
Still, Lee reviewed the election changes in S1, called HR1 in the House, for The Salt Lake Tribune, and he has some reservations.
“In general, I agree with most of the sentiment because we are doing it,” he said, “but I get concerned when they get in the nitty-gritty.”
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty, comparing Utah’s current election system to the provisions in the Democrats’ S1.
Utah was one of five states (and the only Republican-led one) where voting by mail was the primary option in 2020. That means it easily meets the requirements of the bill titled the “For the People Act.” This measure would make every state offer a mail-in ballot if a voter wants one.
Former President Donald Trump repeatedly has criticized mail-in balloting, saying it disadvantages Republicans, but Justin Lee said there’s been no evidence of that in Utah.
“I don’t see anything that ultimately helps one party over another,” he said. “I don’t buy that.”
S1 also would require states to let voters register on Election Day. It would mandate that states offer online voter registration and the ability to change party affiliation. The states must be able to track votes using a paper system, so in-person voting machines must have paper receipts.
The bill would ensure people convicted of felonies can vote if they are out of prison. And it would let people age 16 and up register, but they couldn’t actually cast a ballot until they turn 18.
Utah meets all of these requirements now.
Republican Taylor Morgan is a political consultant who has run campaigns, including for Democrats, and previously worked in Utah’s election office. He’s watched the changes through the years and said this state is unique.
“Utah,” he said, “has the most inclusive and modern election process in the country.”
And the state continues to look for ways to improve voting. Morgan is working to recruit cities to try ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank all of the candidates in a race and if their top choice is eliminated, their vote moves to their second choice and so on until one candidate gets a majority.
Nearly two dozen cities — from Salt Lake City to Sandy, Midvale to Moab — will use ranked-choice voting in this year’s municipal elections.
Close but not quite
A few of the changes in S1 come close to the law in Utah or at least close to how elections have been handled here.
Automatic voter registration • The legislation would create more avenues to automatically sign up people to vote. This could be when they go to school or sign up for health insurance through a government entity, get a concealed carry gun permit or a driver license. Voters would be automatically enrolled unless they ask not to be.
In Utah, people who get driver licenses are told their information will be used to register them to vote unless they opt out, but this marks the only time this happens.
Provisional ballots • The election bill would require the counting of any provisional ballot cast in the wrong precinct, even if that ballot is cast far from a voter’s home.
With Utah’s mostly vote-by-mail system, voters can bring their ballots anywhere in their county and can vote in person anywhere in the county. But, right now, that doesn’t work if a voter crosses those county lines.
Drop boxes • It would require states to offer drop boxes, so people can bring their mail-in ballot. Trump has criticized drop boxes, and some states, like Georgia, have limited their offerings. At this time, there is no requirement that counties use them in Utah, but they are available.
“I’ve seen some of these states trying to put restrictions on these drop boxes and that is just purely suppression,” she said. “I don’t know what else you can call it.”
Early voting • S1, as originally written, would require states to offer 15 days of early voting and at least 10 hours each day.
Democrats plan to carve out states like Utah that are primarily by-mail states, since that level of early voting would be overkill. Lee said that change is a necessity because requiring that much early voting in Utah would be a waste. Only 1% of the ballots cast in 2020 were from people who came in person to vote early.
Utah requires at least four days of early voting over the two weeks before Election Day.
Voter ID laws • This is one of the biggest partisan sticking points. The bill would allow people to sign a sworn affidavit if they don’t have the necessary identification. Republicans strongly oppose this, saying ID laws are needed to ensure voters are legally allowed to participate.
In Utah, residents get mailed a ballot and those who send it back have their signatures matched, so voter ID laws affect only those who vote in person. But for those who show up on Election Day, they need a form of ID, like a driver license. If they don’t have one, Swensen said, they can bring two items from a list of alternatives, such as bank statements or utility bills.
“That makes Utah’s ID requirements better than some states,” the Salt Lake County clerk said.
Still, Utah law does not now allow an affidavit — as Democrats want.
No postage required • The bill would require local governments to foot the bill for mail-in votes (and would help provide that cash). Utah has no such standard, though six counties, including Salt Lake County, pay for postage.
Why Democrats want this bill
The bill stretches beyond voting changes and includes things such as independent redistricting commissions, a system for the public financing of congressional races and a requirement that major party presidential candidates release 10 years of their tax records.
The overall package is being pitched as a civil rights bill that would give voters more confidence in the election system and limit the influence of money in elections. The bill would override more restrictive voting laws passed in states like Georgia and Florida.
“These laws carry the stench of oppression, the smell of bigotry,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday. “Are you going to stamp it out, or are you going to spread it?”
Why Republicans oppose the bill
The House passed the bill 220 to 210, and no Republican supported it. A Senate vote is expected, but so far none of the 50 Republicans has signaled backing for it.
One of the primary arguments Republicans make is the bill intends to benefit Democrats. They don’t like automatic voter registration or limits on voter ID laws.
Republicans also argue that there should not be additional federal mandates on elections. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said of the founders, they “were very clear that they wanted states to make these decisions.”
Broadly, Republicans say Democrats are saying there’s a crisis when there isn’t one. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “Our democracy is not in crisis, and we’re not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it.”
Utah’s elections director weighs in
There are some states where it is much harder to get a mail-in ballot or where lines stretch for hours on Election Day.
“I get why some are frustrated with that,” said Justin Lee, Utah’s elections director. But, overall, he believes this bill “is too broad of a brushstroke for the whole country.” He worries about reporting requirements that could be cumbersome and unnecessary bureaucracy when there have been no major concerns about the legitimacy of elections here.
He’s proud that Utah is a vote-by-mail state, that it offers early voting and Election Day registration.
“Don’t make our life more difficult, he said, “because some state back east is 20 years behind us.”
What happens next
The Senate Rules Committee debated the bill, tweaked it and then deadlocked on a vote 9-9. That doesn’t stop Democratic leaders from bringing the bill to a vote on the floor, even though at this time the measure is unlikely to pass. Expect that vote either late summer or early fall.
At this point, 49 of the 50 Democrats have endorsed the effort, with the lone holdout being Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. President Joe Biden backs it as well.
Democrats have two options to pass the bill: Either persuade Manchin and 10 Republicans to support it or lock down one more vote and change the rules to eliminate the filibuster.
Some Democrats are not on board with that effort. But Schumer isn’t giving in yet. He’s giving himself until August to find a way to push this bill through.