Editorial: Salt Lake County’s mail-in voter system got off to a rough start

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune With 30 minutes left to vote, there are still long lines outside the West Valley City Hall, Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

On paper, it made perfect sense.

Let's make it easier to vote. Send all the registered voters in Salt Lake County their ballots in the mail, so they are on their desks, dressers or kitchen tables nearly three weeks before Election Day.

Now each voter has plenty of time to see what offices and questions are on the ballot, do any necessary research on the ones they'd never heard of before, fill it out in comfort at each voter's own leisure before they sign, seal and have the United States Postal Service deliver it.

What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turned out.

Because Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen was counting on most voters taking advantage of the mail-in option, the 37 voting locations available on Election Day — compared to the traditional 300 or so polling places — proved to be far too few. Lines were long and dedicated voters were still waiting to cast their ballots some three hours after the polls closed.

Results were excruciatingly slow to come in, and so many ballots are yet to be counted that the winners in many contests remain undetermined. All for an overall voter turnout of something north of 80 percent, not that different from the last presidential balloting.

There is no reason to suspect that any of this was a deliberate attempt to discourage participation. Swensen is a Democrat, and voter suppression is a Republican dodge.

It was clearly an experiment that blew up in the county's face. But even those sorts of experiments should teach us something.

This one taught us is that not nearly enough voters took advantage of what was supposed to be the ease of the mail-in system. But it didn't tell us why.

Perhaps they just don't feel right trusting their franchise to the post office. Perhaps they miss the tradition of the traditional visit to the polling place. Maybe the rise of email and online bill paying means that most people didn't even see the ballots in their stacks of junk mail.

We could do a survey by mail. But the return rate would probably be pretty bad. We could do a poll. But, oh, never mind.

A reasonable guess is that a mail ballot is something most people aren't used to, and they will need another cycle or two to adapt. Until the new way has become normalized in the minds of nearly all voters, the county is just going to have to set up many more polling stations and look forward to the day, maybe a few years hence, when those polling stations are lightly used because everybody has either settled into the by-mail election or we develop a reliable means of voting online.

Otherwise, a system intended to boost voter participation will just wind up doing the opposite.

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