John Pudner: Utah shows other red states how to run elections

Increasing voter turn-out and protecting election security can go together.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voter drops off her ballot at the drop-off location in Lehi, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Utah is known as a forward-thinking, innovative and conservative state that produces real results that solve tough challenges. The state ranks first in the nation for its economic outlook in ALEC’s Rich States, Poor States report, a distinction it has maintained since 2008.

Utah’s leadership among conservative states and aptitude for innovation is not only exemplified in business and tech, but also in elections. Other red states should follow suit and advocate for the successful adoption of key election reforms, using the safeguards pioneered in Utah.

On issues from mail-in voting to accessible voting to instant runoffs and ranked-choice voting, conservatives rightfully point out abuses in other states. However, in every case, Utah has proven it is not an all-or-nothing question of voter access vs. ballot security, but rather a question of how to make that innovation work.

Any attempt to research and create nonpartisan election reforms should start by reviewing the Utah method. Much of the concern regarding vote-by-mail throughout the conservative base could be alleviated if states implemented safeguards used in Utah. To successfully implement vote-by-mail, election officials have safeguards in place to ensure anonymity and security. This includes frequent voter list maintenance to ensure ballots are sent to the right places and not sent to those who have moved.

Additionally, the signature-matching process in Utah is exceptional, catching even abuses such as someone filling out a spouse’s ballot in addition to their own. Utah increases efficiency and reduces human error while ensuring accuracy and security.

Compare this process to the last-minute decision in Nevada to mail live ballots to every name still on a voter list, without first cleaning up the voter rolls, and you can see why Nevada was Exhibit A for conservative challenges to election results when mail-in voting is abused.

A thorough security process and phasing vote-by-mail in over a few years has actually preceded historical wins for conservative candidates. For example, in the close Utah 4th Congressional District race, Republican Burgess Owens won on higher turnout in a district that favors Republicans slightly but had been in Democratic hands. Further away, Florida Republicans used strong mail-in-voting operations to pull out close races, from George W. Bush in 2000 to the more recent upset win by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Both wins were in large part due to the ability of Republican areas to turn out in higher numbers given the ease of voting by mail. Studies have shown that vote-by-mail does not generally advantage either party; but, it does increase voter turnout. Additionally, it gives voters more time to study issues and candidates on the ballot as they have their ballots in hand for days or even weeks before election day.

Just as Nevada demonstrated how not to do mail-in voting, New York City recently showed how NOT to run a ranked-choice vote election. As Business Insider reported, “The Board of Elections messed up on messaging and tabulation, but in the end the system worked.” To the consternation of progressives, once the 135,000 votes erroneously counted by the New York City Election Board were eliminated, the winner was former police officer Eric Adams. The ranked-choice voting system let a majority of New York City Democrats reject the “Defund the Police” movement by electing Adams, who the conservative New York Post called a “Godsend.

Virginia Republicans ran a ranked-choice voting convention that produced a strong ticket this summer, and Georgia’s recent election reform bill (attacked by progressives) included allowing a scaled-down version of ranked choice voting called instant runoffs for military overseas voters. However, Utah emerged as the true leader among “red states” by first trying ranked-choice voting in a few localities, and this year expanding ranked-choice voting to dozens of localities across the state. None of these states made any of the mistakes made in New York City.

The nation should also follow the lead of Utah County as one of the few jurisdictions in the nation which offers a secure remote option for voters in the disability community, military and overseas (including missionaries). Countries around the world offer a variety of mobile voting platforms to their voters and each platform goes through a series of security testing. Making this technology available in Utah is critical to ensure those with a disability are afforded an accessible way to vote at home like all other voters who can otherwise use a mail ballot.

Utahns have paved the way for the nation with innovative election reforms. They’ve learned from mistakes and can now share those lessons with the rest of the nation. Utah is once again a beacon to the nation, and if other states follow these examples every voter across America can be confident that elections are transparent and secure, and that their voice is heard.

John Pudner | executive director of Take Back Our Republic

John Pudner is executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a nonprofit educating the public on conservative solutions for political reform.