Tribune Editorial: Vote is in the mail

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Employees in Salt Lake County's Election Division prepare mail in ballots to be sorted and counted at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City, Tuesday October 18, 2016.

Utah is still dealing with what its state election director rightly called “a learning curve” when it comes to conducting elections by mail.

It should stick with the plan until the curve, as it surely will, flattens out and the idea of putting your ballot in the mail becomes routine.

Last year, Salt Lake County election officials guessed wrong when they established a relatively few traditional polling stations for the 2016 general election. Their faith that more voters would prefer the ease and extra time afforded by a fully mail-ballot election proved misplaced and, come Election Day, those locations were overwhelmed with voters who wanted to do it the old-fashioned way.

Earlier this month, officials were compelled to throw out some 2,400 ballots out of the 162,000 or so cast in the special election to fill the 3rd Congressional District seat abandoned by Jason Chaffetz.

That’s a fraction of a percentage of the votes cast. And there is no reason to worry that it would have changed the outcome, especially as the margin of victory won by new Rep. John Curtis was so large. Still, whenever more than a handful of ballots aren’t counted, it is time to stop and wonder why.

And why, in this case, was mostly that some 970 of the mail-in ballots in newly adopting Utah County were postmarked after the legal deadline. The legal deadline being not Election Day, which seems intuitive, but the day before the election. Other problems include people forgetting to sign the envelopes the ballots are returned in. Signatures that, in the judgment of the election officials, didn’t match those on file. Envelopes mailed in with no ballots inside. Or, in only 10 known cases, voters who had died.

The good news is that district-wide voter turnout was 43 percent. That’s pretty good for a Utah election and very good for a hastily called special election. Mail-voting Grand County returned the best turnout — almost 65 percent — while non-mail-balloting Emery County had the lowest — a bit under 28 percent.

Mail ballots are, and should be, the wave of the future. They increase voter participation which, in a democracy, is always good. They give voters time to research issues and candidates and ponder their choices so they are less likely to make snap decisions on questions and candidates they never heard of before while standing in a voting booth.

And the stacks of ballots that get sent back to the several county clerks provide an easily verifiable paper trail should any election result be called into question. That is a level of confidence that may not always attach to any kind of electronic or online election.

Utah will get the hang of mail voting. And that will be good for all of us.