Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has argued articulately — both at home and in our nation’s capital — in favor of Utah’s system of primarily vote-by-mail elections. Cox’s comments, coinciding with a ballot initiative effort to eliminate vote by mail for most Utah voters, underscore the need to elevate facts and evidence above partisanship and polarization in the debate about vote by mail.
The need for better information is made more urgent by the fact that vote by mail is an extension of one of our most basic civic institutions: voting. Utah policymakers and the public deserve the best information available, especially when a policy holds such significant ramifications for self-government and democracy.
Attempting to fulfill that aspiration, Sutherland Institute has published a new report examining the evidence about vote by mail. The history, politics and scholarly research behind vote by mail mean we do not have to rely solely on anecdote or hypotheticals.
Vote by mail has a long history in the United States, beginning more than 150 years ago. During the Civil War, and again during World War II, various forms of vote by mail were established or expanded to allow soldiers on the battlefield to cast a ballot. The type of vote-by-mail program now familiar to Utahns began during the 1970s and ‘80s.
In Utah, the modern form of vote by mail started in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2012 that it began to be used more broadly. In 2010, under 15% of Utahns cast ballots using vote by mail. By 2018 it was 90%. In the 2020 elections, vote-by-mail was the preferred voting method of 93% of Utah voters, despite continued availability of in-person Election Day voting.
Historically, partisan support of (or opposition to) vote by mail has flipped depending on the perceived advantage for a political party’s presidential candidate. During the 1864 presidential election, Republican Abraham Lincoln ran for re-election. Under the belief that battlefield soldiers would favor Lincoln, Republicans supported vote by mail and Democrats opposed it.
In 1944, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt was up for re-election. This time Republicans opposed vote by mail, concerned that soldiers fighting the Nazis and Japanese would turn out to support their sitting commander-in-chief, while many Democrats supported it for the same reason.
Curiously, in the Civil War debate over vote by mail, the Democrats’ argument was that it would lead to voter fraud and the possibility of an illegitimately won election. It seems that while times have changed dramatically since the Civil War, opposition rhetoric on vote by mail has not.
Scholarly research suggests that: (1) vote by mail does not, on average, create electoral advantages for either political party, (2) vote by mail has a modest impact on overall voter turnout, and (3) vote by mail is not associated with significant, widespread voter fraud. Utah’s success in implementing vote by mail over the span of a decade – with more than 20 distinct layers of security in place today to protect election integrity – offers some possible reasons for these outcomes.
Equipped with good facts and evidence, policymakers and the public can engage in an informed policy debate about vote by mail. While recognizing political realities, we are not doomed to a fate driven by partisan division and electoral politicking. Utahns’ devotion to evidence-based policymaking and our level of trust in our civic institutions will ultimately determine whether Utah’s future vote-by-mail policy is ignorant of the facts or enlightened by them.
Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute.