In the run-up to the 2020 election, Utah was having a moment, enjoying the kind of spotlight leaders of the state of 3.2 million relish.
Utah had instituted universal vote by mail, and its Republican leaders were proud of the elections held in one of the most conservative states in the country. Then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told The Atlantic that “vote by mail has been incredibly successful here. It has helped increase voter turnout. It also leads, I believe, to a more informed electorate.” Sen. Mitt Romney added: “In my state, I’ll bet 90% of us vote by mail. It works very, very well and it’s a very Republican state.”
And yet, Republicans in other red states are instituting stricter voter ID requirements, specifically targeting mail-in voting. In Texas, Republicans passed a bill requiring absentee voters to provide their driver’s license number to receive a ballot and made it illegal for election officials to send ballots to voters who don’t request them. Similarly, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law requiring absentee voters to submit a copy of their ID. Even in Montana, where 73% of the votes cast were by mail in the state’s 2018 general election, new laws went into effect that restrict who can pick up mail-in ballots.
The conservative turn against mail-in voting is a new phenomenon. “If absentee balloting had been associated with either party, it had been associated with the Republican Party,” said Charles Stewart, an elections expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
That’s because voting by mail stands to benefit three groups that traditionally lean more Republican: rural voters, older voters and those who travel frequently, Stewart said.
If vote by mail works well for Republicans, why are they clamoring to restrict access to it across the country?
And why is Utah going in a different direction?
The popularity of mail-in voting, which began in the United States during the Civil War, used to be dictated by geography. Western states with wide-open spaces, where driving to a polling place could take hours, tended to favor its adoption, whereas in the East more established political processes and denser populations made relying on the Postal Service to vote a rarity.
In the 1980s, California became one of the first states to allow “no-excuse” absentee voting, which essentially ensured that anyone could vote by mail, although unlike universal mail-in voting, ballots were not automatically sent to the voter’s home. Instead voters had to opt in. In 1998, Oregon instituted universal vote by mail, followed by Washington state in 2011 and Colorado in 2013. Nevada made universal vote by mail permanent in June, and California is in the process of transitioning.
Utah began offering the option of vote by mail county by county in 2012. Prior to adoption, Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, conducted research looking at best practices and interviewing county clerks.
“For some people in Utah there was a feeling that maybe we could save some money,” Cann said. At the time, voting machines needed to be updated and Utah had to decide whether to make a huge investment in polling places or forge a new path.
Part of the reason vote by mail was so successful in the state was that it took an incremental rather than statewide approach. “It was a big hit early on in some of the rural counties,” Cann said.
Plus, because it was not quickly imposed on the state all at once, people had the opportunity to slowly become acquainted with the system — they may have had friends or family in early adopter counties who voted by mail and could vouch for it.
When Utah passed its universal vote-by-mail legislation, it wasn’t contentious: “Both parties said it was their No. 1 priority that session,” state Rep. Steve Eliason, the Republican who sponsored Utah’s vote-by-mail bill, said in April 2020. The prospect of higher voter turnout was appealing to Republicans and Democrats, and universal vote by mail, in which a ballot is automatically sent to the home of every registered voter, promised to do just that.
The narrative around mail-in voting took on a more partisan edge in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, when then-President Donald Trump said instituting universal vote by mail would lead to massive fraud, and even declaring at one point that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” His campaign attempted to block mail-in voting in Montana, while other Republicans were trying to encourage people to vote by mail. “We are hurting ourselves and put- ting ourselves at a disadvantage,” one GOP county chairman in Wisconsin told NPR at the time.
Trump’s claims about election fraud proved false, but his rhetoric may have had an impact on the partisan nature of voting by mail. From 2008 to 2016, Democrats had a slight edge in their propensity to vote by mail, although Stewart says that’s largely because mostly blue states had implemented vote by mail.
That radically shifted in 2020. Last year, nearly 60% of Democrats cast their ballots by mail, while only 30% of Republicans did. And now, Republicans like Georgia’s governor and secretary of state, who initially spoke out against Trump’s election integrity claims, threw their support behind laws requiring IDs for absentee voting.
“Utah should not be a model,” said Hans von Spakovsky, head of the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank. He believes that voting by mail is more susceptible to fraud, that ballots are more likely to get rejected and that if voters send in their ballots early, they don’t have access to the most up-to-date information. “Absentee ballots are the only kind of ballots that are voted outside the supervision of election officials. And outside of the observation of poll watchers. That’s what makes them easily targeted.”
He said only a limited number of people, like those serving in the military or people with disabilities, should be allowed to vote by mail, and laws like those in Texas requiring identification when requesting an absentee ballot are important to preventing fraud. “I’m not going to tell you that we have massive voter fraud, or that it’s widespread. But we have it occur often enough that we should be concerned about it.”
The pandemic resulted in significant expansion of voting by mail — nearly 70% of voters either cast their ballots before Election Day or by mail, according to the Census Bureau. But that hasn’t resulted in an eagerness to maintain those systems. For example, while all voters could request an absentee ballot in Kentucky last year, the General Assembly moved to return to previous restrictions and only allow those with special circumstances to use the system.
“I always joke, if you’re a policymaker, and you won your last election, then obviously the election was well run — it was fair, it was a good system, you want to keep that,” said Trey Grayson, former secretary of state of Kentucky.
Aside from concerns of fraud, a big part of the reason states may not be eager to adopt universal vote by mail is simple inertia and comfort with how they’ve done things in the past. Swing states like Nevada managed to pass legislation instituting universal vote by mail strictly along party lines, with Republicans voting against it and Democrats for (“I was disappointed but not surprised,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblyman Jason Frierson).
“I think largely the rollbacks that we’ve seen this year have been driven by the disinformation and the partisan conspiracies that have been drummed up over the 2020 election,” said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and a former elections official for Colorado who helped write the state’s vote-by-mail laws.
While vote by mail does pose new potential for fraud, in Utah, systems have been put in place to limit that. Signature verification and ballot tracking both work to prevent widespread voter fraud, Cann said. But the concern persists among conservatives and in states where vote by mail isn’t the norm.
And for all the partisan rancor vote by mail has generated — from Democrats in California eagerly embracing it to Republicans in Montana curbing it — research on its impacts on voter turnout or partisanship tend to be lackluster. Most studies on vote by mail, such as one published by researchers at Stanford in 2020, have found that neither party really benefits, or only marginally so in some cases.
Researchers at BYU analyzing data from the 2020 election, where many states made vote by mail mandatory in response to the pandemic, found that the result was a modest increase in turnout that benefited neither party. There may be a slight bump in turnout following its implementation, but even that doesn’t really continue long term, according to Cann.
“The bulk of the scholarly literature on this shows that what voting by mail really does is make it more convenient for people who are already going to vote.” The greatest impact it might have, Cann said, is on local elections that voters might otherwise forget about. “I’m not personally an advocate for or against voting by mail. I’m an advocate for well-administered elections.”
You can have a solid, high-integrity traditional Election Day polling place. And you can do the same for voting by mail, he said.
For now, vote by mail doesn’t seem likely to catch on in states that aren’t already used to it. Grayson in Kentucky said that while he voted by mail and found the process to be easy, lawmakers in his state are not on board with expanding it beyond the pandemic. “Vote by mail now has this partisan taint that’s gonna hurt people’s comfort.” At the end of the day, Grayson says, establishing comfort is crucial to making the system work.
Western states once seemed like early adopters of a system that would only grow in popularity across the nation, particularly as states were forced to expand mail-in voting in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. But that has not been the case. Utah is now somewhat of an anomaly: a conservative state that’s still all in on voting by mail.