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Voting by mail — when did we decide democracy should be low-tech?

FILE - Dahnelle Burton-Lee secures envelopes at the Salt Lake County Election Division in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.
FILE - Dahnelle Burton-Lee secures envelopes at the Salt Lake County Election Division in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

If nothing else, we may have found a way to give the U.S. Postal Service another reason to exist.

The agency may have lost $586 million during the spring quarter alone, but it appears to have a bright future as the carrier of choice for democracy in the 21st century.

Well, that and advertising circulars.

This week, the democracy role became evident in Utah, where the largest cities held primary elections entirely by mail-in ballots. It’s part of a nationwide trend. Citing Census Bureau figures and a report from the Survey of the Performance of American Elections, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that about 25 percent of American voters cast mail-in ballots in the 2014 midterm elections, up from about 10 percent in 2000.

The year 2000, you may remember, was when Florida’s endless presidential count and recount led to a nationwide movement to embrace technology. Conventional wisdom said the key to safe and accurate counts, not to mention lightning-fast Election Day results, was the computer (and trustworthy employees who wouldn’t tamper with it).

But now the future is all about pencils and paper.

What in the name of hanging chads is going on here?

“I guess it might seem as if we’re taking a step backwards,” Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told me by phone Tuesday. Not only is this system low-tech, it won’t be very fast when it comes to producing final results. As long as they were postmarked in time, ballots will keep coming in after Election Day.

But Swensen, whose office was busy opening and verifying 6,000 ballots Tuesday alone, is a big fan.

Besides, she said, it’s hard to find anyone producing electronic voting machines these days. Perhaps the folks who were doing that a decade ago can see the writing on the ballot.

Which raises perhaps the most important unanswered question in this shifting wind. Who else can see the writing on the ballot?

The only thing more certain than death and taxes is that someone, somewhere will try to cheat when political power is on the line.

Three years ago, The New York Times published a story outlining some of the pitfalls with mail-in ballots. It said, “Votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show.”

It pointed to the case of a Florida woman who had been charged with a felony for allegedly filling out 31 ballots and forging an elderly person’s signature. In other parts of that retirement-friendly state, the idea of “helping” older people fill out their ballots had become so alluring it gave birth to a new term — “granny farming.”

Swensen is quick to say this may be happening in Florida, but not here. When pressed, she acknowledges someone might coerce an elderly person into voting a certain way, but that could happen if someone accompanied that person to a polling booth, as well. She insists Salt Lake County has few such problems.

Democracy’s nasty little secret, however, is that no one has yet to invent a 100 percent safe voting system. The first time a close, important election hangs on whether a ballot’s signature is valid, we may rethink this move toward mail.

Regardless, for now you had better sharpen your pencils and get ready to go back to the future. The Salt Lake County Auditor’s Office soon will give a report on this trend to the County Council, which may decide to hold the 2016 general election by mail. Each Utah county gets to decide for itself, but don’t be surprised if many of them jump on the bandwagon.

For one thing, voting by mail seems to be good for turnout.

As of Tuesday morning, turnout countywide was 24.68 percent. In Salt Lake City alone, it was 35 percent. That may seem paltry for the world’s most important democracy, but as far as municipal primaries are concerned, it’s almost a miracle.

Add in the fact that voting by mail is cheaper than maintaining machines and polling places, and it’s easy to see where this is going — unless, of course, the Postal Service disappears.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.