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Deep red Utah wants to keep voting by mail


Deep red Utah wants to keep voting by mail

Mar 12, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Matt Vasilogambros
Deep red Utah wants to keep voting by mail
A woman inserts her ballot into a drop box on Nov. 2, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah, unlike many Republican-led states, continues to embrace voting by mail and has rejected efforts to limit access. Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

When it comes to voting by mail, Utah is not your typical deep red state.

In 2020, when many states scrambled to implement mail-in voting so voters had a safe way to cast a ballot during the pandemic, Utah already had a system.

Republican conspiracy theories questioning the integrity of voting by mail in the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 election never rang true for most Utahns. They’d been testing the system for years and found it trustworthy and convenient.

In Utah, that appreciation has stuck in the four years since, despite several legislative attempts by Republicans to curb residents’ access to mail-in ballots.

Again this year, members of the Republican supermajority in Salt Lake City joined Democrats in rejecting attempts to curb the state’s universal vote-by-mail system. The failed bills would have added a new deadline for turning in ballots and required voters to request mail-in ballots rather than having them sent automatically.

There’s a different story playing out nationally. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee, has — without evidence — lambasted the voting process as being rife with fraud and has blamed it for rigging elections for his opponents. Republican lawmakers around the country have listened to him.

Republican-led states have restricted access to voting by mail through tighter deadlines, limiting who can request a mail-in ballot and eliminating drop boxes. Utah, though, continues to back its approach to ballot access, as bipartisan opponents turned aside efforts to restrict mail-in voting.

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The mistrust of an unfamiliar voting method that dominated other red states’ politics never landed fully in Utah, said TJ Ellerbeck, executive director of the Rural Utah Project, a group that advocates for Native American and rural voters.

“Most average voters in Utah don’t think that there’s anything wrong that needs to be fixed,” Ellerbeck said. “The ideas that are put forth by a handful of legislators in states across the country just really don’t reflect what people actually think about our voting system.”

Some of the Republican lawmakers behind proposed mail-voting restrictions in Utah concede that point, even as they try to navigate the prevailing mood in their party. In order to restore confidence in elections, the argument goes, voting rules must be tightened.

Republican state Rep. Norm Thurston, for example, proposed a measure that would have required that mailed ballots get to county clerks on Election Day, instead of merely being postmarked by Election Day. That would have cut into potential voters’ time to make their decisions and added uncertainty in rural areas with slower mail service.

“In Utah, I don’t know that we have a particular problem,” Thurston said in an interview.

“But one of my concerns is making sure that our voters have confidence that our voting process is not flawed or vulnerable,” he said. “We want people to know our process is solid and that people can have trust in how things are going to turn out.”

In Utah, though, voter confidence is high.

We have a very vibrant voting system in Utah. We have been able to prove that we are a model for the nation on mailed ballots.

– Katharine Biele, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah

According to a January poll commissioned by the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank, 76% of likely 2024 voters in the state think the vote-by-mail process produces fair outcomes.

“There’s a political momentum on the Republican side to put more restrictions on it,” said Derek Monson, chief growth officer at the Sutherland Institute. “But it’s up against this experiential reality that people like it, they’re familiar with it, they’re confident in it.”

In the large, rural state, whose southeastern end includes a slice of the Navajo Nation, voting by mail allows remote voters who may be hours from a polling place to conveniently cast their ballots. Even before the pandemic, Utah was one of four states (Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon were the others) where nearly all voters used mail-in ballots, keeping only a handful of vote centers open for people to drop them off in person. Today, Utah is the sole Republican state among the eight states (plus the District of Columbia) that send mail-in ballots to every voter.

“We have a very vibrant voting system in Utah,” said Katharine Biele, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah. “We have been able to prove that we are a model for the nation on mailed ballots.”

So far, Utah has resisted attempts at making major changes to its vote-by-mail system. But voting rights advocates are not breathing easy.

“Utah is not immune,” said Ellerbeck. “It’s a fight we’re winning, but we haven’t won.”

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There are some members of the legislature who, like Thurston, want to add limits in the name of improving accuracy and integrity of elections. Utah wouldn’t be alone among states that have tighter rules around voting by mail, even in states led by Democrats.

He got the idea for his legislation, he said, during a National Conference of State Legislatures summit. There, he heard that blue Colorado, which also has a vote-by-mail system, requires that ballots be received by county clerks by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

“We were trying to figure out if there is a way that we can accelerate the finalization of the election with the goal of giving more people confidence that our election processes is safe,” said Thurston, who added that he returns his ballot early through a drop box, not trusting the mail.

Hundreds of supporters of voting by mail showed up at the committee hearing for his bill in January; they argued that a change in long-standing procedure could confuse and potentially disenfranchise voters who have slow mail in rural areas.

After the bill was held in committee by a unanimous vote, including by Thurston, committee leaders didn’t take up another bill that would have limited voting by mail.

Thurston said he understood the concerns local election officials and voters voiced about changing deadlines, acknowledging that it might require a “massive” voter awareness campaign, which could be expensive and difficult.

Similar objections were raised in 2022, when one Republican lawmaker attempted to scrap the state’s vote-by-mail system and return to in-person voting. That bill also failed to advance out of committee, with several Republicans joining Democrats to defeat it.

Voting by mail remains at risk in many other states.

Last month, the Republican-led Arizona House passed a bill that would limit mail-in voting to people with disabilities, military members and older people, with limited exceptions for people temporarily out of the state. The bill is awaiting a committee hearing in the state Senate.

Meanwhile, at least two dozen other states are exploring further limits this year, though few if any have been signed into law. Last year, 14 states enacted 17 restrictive voting laws that included banning ballot drop boxes, requiring more information to receive mail-in ballots and shortening deadlines for turning in absentee ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based voting rights advocacy organization.

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Even in Utah, new hurdles to voting have emerged in recent years.

In 2022, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law a measure that requires 24-hour video surveillance of ballot drop boxes. Voting rights advocates opposed the bill, arguing it would limit some locations for drop boxes in heavily rural areas, especially on the Navajo Nation, where there is sporadic electricity, said Ellerbeck, of the Rural Utah Project.

And in Utah County, the second most populous in the state, County Clerk Aaron Davidson, a Republican, decided the county would no longer pay postage for mail-in ballots.

The move aims to encourage voters to use ballot drop boxes, instead of relying on the mail. It will also save the county $110,000 a year, he said. Nineteen Utah counties don’t provide postage for mail-in ballots, Davidson pointed out, while 10 others do, including Salt Lake County, home to more than a third of Utahns.

Davidson made the announcement while speaking in favor of Thurston’s legislation during the committee hearing in January. He told Stateline, though, that he had softened his position on mail-in ballot deadlines after hearing testimony from clerks in smaller, more rural counties who worried delays in the mail could make it harder to make an Election Day deadline.

“Society has just got more complex, and people need that ability to vote by mail,” Davidson said. “But I do believe it needs some more restrictions.”