Proposed ballot initiative would return Utah to in-person paper balloting on Election Day

Proposal would end universal mail-in voting and make it more difficult to register to vote.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) An election worker checks ballots in the elections management center at Salt Lake County Government Center Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Salt Lake City. A proposed ballot initiative would replace universal vote-by-mail in Utah with in-person, paper ballots.

A group calling itself Secure Vote Utah is hoping to get enough signatures to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot to do away with Utah’s mail-in elections in favor of all paper ballots. The proposal also scraps early voting and most absentee balloting and makes it more difficult to register to vote.

The proposal filed with the Lieutenant Governor’s office makes several significant changes to how the state conducts elections.

As it stands, every registered voter in the state is sent a ballot through the mail. Those ballots must be postmarked the day before the election, and voters can also drop off ballots at official drop boxes before the polls close on Election Day. The Legislature first approved the law allowing elections to be conducted entirely by mail in 2012.

If voters approve the initiative, nearly all voting would use paper ballots, marked by a pen or pencil, at neighborhood polling places. The only exceptions are for disabled individuals who need a mechanical method for voting.

The last time Utah conducted most elections using paper ballots was in 1986, when 22 of 29 counties used paper ballots. Punch-card ballots in the other counties that year.

Absentee ballots are only allowed in limited circumstances and must be received the Friday before an election. People who cannot vote on Election Day due to an unforeseen emergency, including hospitalization, may cast an “emergency ballot” so long as it’s delivered by noon the day before an election, and the reason for requesting one is disclosed.

The proposal ends all early in-person voting in Utah, which currently starts 14 days before an election and ends four days before Election Day.

The use of voting machines or mechanical counting machines is nixed. Utah used some optical scan ballots in 2000 but moved to uniform Diebold voting machines in 2006 using money from the Help America Vote Act that Congress passed following the controversial vote in the 2000 presidential contest. Under the proposal, local election judges at precinct polling places would count all of the ballots on election night, with the results announced that evening. There would be no more waiting for several days after the election to count late-arriving mail ballots.

“In-person voting is much more secure than mail-in ballots,” Lew Moore, director of Secure Vote Utah said in a telephone conversation on Monday.

Moore, who was the national campaign manager for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, makes it clear he’s not making any allegations about irregularities in Utah’s elections.

“Paper ballots are much more secure than sending a ballot through the mail. I’m not alleging any specific problem about Utah’s elections, but I think we all want to make sure elections are as secure as possible,” Moore says.

Then-Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told NPR in October of 2020 the state conducted 90% of the 2018 election by mail with no widespread fraud.

“The fraud we did see is very unintentional. It tends to often be moms whose kids are at school or whose kids are on missions for their church who get the ballot and talk to them and fill it out for them and send it in,” Cox said. “And they get a polite call from the county attorney letting them know that that is fraudulent and illegal and that they could go to jail for that.”

Mail-in voting proved to be wildly popular in Utah in 2020. More than 1.5 million Utahns cast a ballot, which was the highest turnout since 1960.

The initiative makes many other broad changes to Utah election law.

If passed, it would become much more difficult to register to vote. Currently, the deadline for registering to vote is 11 days before the election, but voters can register to vote on Election Day by casting a provisional ballot at an in-person polling place. The initiative eliminates all of that, imposing a strict deadline to register 30 days prior to an election. If a voter changes their address less than 30 days before an election, they will not be permitted to register to vote at the new address, and they can’t cast a ballot at the previous location.

The ability to register to vote online or through the mail is also on the chopping block. Only in-person registration is permitted.

The proposal also dramatically reduces the types of ID a voter can use to register and cast a ballot. Only a valid Utah driver’s license or ID, or a valid Utah concealed weapon permit would count. Those are also the only forms of ID that can be used to request or cast an absentee or emergency ballot. Passports, military IDs, tribal identification cards, birth certificates, social security cards, school IDs, or other means of identification would no longer be accepted.

The in-person requirement for registering to vote would effectively eliminate voter registration drives as voters are required to hand in their own registration form. It would be illegal for anyone to “control” another person’s registration application, with each violation being a class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each offense.

The initiative also provides a mechanism for candidates to request a “sample audit” of election results, giving them the ability to choose up to three precincts that voted in the election for extra scrutiny. The audit could include a recount, physical examination of ballots, or a “telephone canvass” of up to 10% of the voters in the precinct to verify whether they voted in the election. The audit must be paid for by the candidate who requests it.

The proposal also kills Utah’s pilot program allowing cities to use ranked choice voting in municipal elections. Twenty-three Utah cities used ranked choice voting this year.

Former Utah Rep. Steve Christiansen, who championed election fraud conspiracy theories before resigning abruptly from the Utah Legislature in October, said Monday he hopes the initiative will prompt lawmakers to adopt the changes in the initiative during the 2022 session, which begins in January.

“[This] is a critical initiative that will receive much of my time. Please join in. This will not only get a citizen initiative on the 11/22 ballot, but it will also demonstrate to the legislature during their upcoming general session what kind of secure election system we want and encourage them to make the necessary changes now, not next November!” Christiansen wrote in a Telegram post.

There are several steps backers must complete before they can start gathering signatures to put the proposal on next November’s ballot. First, legislative analysts must provide a good estimate of how much the proposal would cost if passed. After that, sponsors must hold at least seven public hearings around the state.

When that’s done, they’ll have 30 days to gather and submit nearly 138,000 signatures from voters across Utah. They must also meet specific signature thresholds in 26 of the state’s 29 state Senate districts. Those gathering signatures can register Utahns to vote as the law currently stands.