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House committee OKs bill requiring paid postage for by-mail ballots

A House committee considered a handful of bills aiming to address a range of election-related issues Monday, but only one was given a favorable recommendation.
A House committee considered a handful of bills aiming to address a range of election-related issues Monday, but only one was given a favorable recommendation.
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SALT LAKE CITY — A House committee considered a handful of bills aiming to address a range of election-related issues Monday, but only one was given a favorable recommendation.

That bill, HB230, would require counties to pay return postage on absentee ballots when conducting a vote-by-mail election, among other more technical changes related to deal with invalid absentee votes.

Two other bills were more problematic for lawmakers, leading their sponsors to ask the committee to hold the bills until they could work through some of the concerns.

Those bills were HB221, which would require clerks to complete an unofficial count of all ballots within 72 hours after an election; and HB159, which would create a process to automatically register to vote Utahns who apply for or renew their driver's license or state ID unless they opt out.

Paid postage

HB230's sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said he aimed to address a variety of election issues through the bill.

What stirred most discussion in the committee meeting, however, was a measure to require counties to pay for the return postage stamp in vote-by-mail elections.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, supported the measure, arguing it would better engage millennial voters who may not keep a regular supply of stamps.

"We need to be doing everything we can to encourage voting," she said.

But Ryan Cowley, Weber County's elections director, said he and other clerks opposed the bill because of the financial impact on counties — potentially $450,000 each election cycle statewide, according to the bill's fiscal note.

Cowley argued that individual counties should be able to decide whether their budgets allow for postage costs. For last year's election, six of the 21 counties that opted to conduct a vote-by-mail election decided to take that cost.

"This should not be saddled upon the counties to pay for," he said, arguing that other voting options — like driving to a polling place or a by-mail drop box — also cost Utahns in gas.

Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, suggested an amendment to remove the postage requirement, arguing that it's unnecessary.

"I wonder if millennials are offended that we believe they will not be able to somehow get to the post office or purchase a stamp," he said.

But Peterson's proposal failed to garner enough support from the committee. It was given a favorable recommendation with a 6-3 vote.

Faster results

Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, the sponsor of HB221, said his bill aims to address a problem that arose on election night for last year's presidential race.

Many close races — particularly in Salt Lake County — were unsettled days week after the election because counties still had tens of thousands more ballots to count when the results were posted shortly after polls closed on election night.

The day after the election, clerks reported there were nearly 230,000 uncounted ballots because they'd received an extraordinary number on the final days before and the day of the election.

"The voters deserve to know the results of the election much sooner," Cutler said, arguing that clerks should be able to at least tabulate all of their ballots within three days of the election, with exceptions of provisional or absentee ballots that cannot be initially verified.

But Davis County Clerk Brian McKenzie spoke against the bill, arguing it would place clerks in an impractical situation, especially when they receive a flood of by-mail ballots just days before the election.

"A 72-hour time frame is just not realistic. It's not possible for us," he said.

Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch said his county received 52 percent of its ballots on the Monday or Tuesday of election week. For Salt Lake County, that number was 111,000.

"If you're going to try to rush things right after the election, you're going to force clerks to have to cut corners," Hatch said. "There are very few things in our republic that we want to cut corners on than elections."

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, recommended that the committee hold the bill for more study.

"I think we all acknowledge there were serious problems on Election Day," he said.

But while the bill makes an attempt to resolve some of those issues, it may create an "impractical if not impossible" task for clerks, Nelson said.

Automatic registration

HB159's sponsor, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, said the bill would streamline the voter registration process by creating an automatic route for Utahns applying for or renewing a driver's license or state ID.

Currently, Utahns must check a box on the application to opt for voter registration.

Handy said the Utah Motor Vehicle Division processed more than 900,000 applications last year, but only 300,000 of those registered to vote through their application.

Arent motioned to recommend the bill to the House floor, arguing it "provides more accuracy, simplifies the process, increases the ease of registration for voters."

But the bill stalled when questions of unintended consequences surfaced.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, wondered if Utahns — particularly those who have experienced domestic violence — may take issue with their name and address automatically becoming available online through the voter registration database.

Cutler said he didn't want to risk losing the bill on the floor without hashing out concerns in committee first, so the committee voted 9-0 to put it on hold.