Eliminating vote by mail could make Utah election costs skyrocket

A proposed ballot initiative seeks to return Utah to in-person paper voting on election day.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brett Jensen drops his ballot in the drop box at the River's Bend Senior Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

A proposed ballot initiative to eliminate vote by mail in Utah and return the state to in-person paper balloting on election day carries a hefty price tag, according to a fiscal analysis of the measure.

The “Secure Vote Utah” ballot initiative aims to end mail-in balloting in favor of voters casting paper ballots at individual polling places, with those votes being counted on election day. If passed, there would be no more early voting, and casting an absentee ballot would only be allowed under certain circumstances.

The fiscal note for the initiative says returning to paper ballots – a method that has not seen widespread use in Utah since 1986 – would cost local governments a total of $36.8 million in one-time costs and another $19.2 million every year thereafter.

That’s much more expensive than the current system. Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch estimates going back would make elections three times more expensive.

“On average, elections in Utah cost between $3 (million) and $3.5 million dollars. If this initiative were to pass, it would cost roughly $9.5 million per election or about three times more,” Hatch said in a text message.

The initiative requires every precinct to have a polling location. Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen says there are 848 precincts in the county.

“There would be three poll workers and three counting judges at each polling place. That is a huge number of poll workers to recruit and train — not to mention the time and resources to contract for 848 polling places,” Swensen says.

She adds it may not be possible to find that many polling places because they all need to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are unable to use schools because of security issues. She worries the result would be “a mess.”

“We would have to mail voters a polling location notice like we did before vote by mail. The voters can only go to that specific polling place,” Swensen says.

Swensen says the total cost of the 2020 general election, which was conducted primarily via mail-in ballot, was $1.8 million in Salt Lake County.

Utah County Clerk Josh Daniels estimates elections currently cost about $1.50 per voter per election. If there’s a primary, that’s $3 every election cycle. Eliminating vote by mail would boost the per election cost to about $2 per voter per election, but other costs like voting machines and equipment would go down.

Again, the real problem is finding enough polling locations. Daniels says they would need to find ten times as many as they have now.

“Churches would have to agree to much higher use. Currently, we use a few, but we’d need hundreds. If we can’t get polling locations donated and find other savings, it could definitely triple our costs,” Daniels said.

Secure Vote Utah backers have a tall order ahead of them before they even get to that point. They have only until Feb. 15 to collect 137,929 signatures from registered voters across the state. They must also meet signature thresholds in 26 of Utah’s 29 Senate districts.

In 2021, lawmakers passed a new law that could make gathering signatures more time-consuming. Petitioners must ensure a voter has a chance to read and understand the law being proposed by the initiative, which means they must have a printed or digital copy of the proposal and wait for a voter to read it before they can sign. They are also required to tell voters they must read and understand the law before signing the petition.

Every voter who signs the petition will have their name posted on the corresponding county website for 90 days. They’ll have the opportunity to remove their signatures from the petition.

If they meet those goals, the initiative will be included on the ballot for the 2022 election, which will be conducted via mail.