SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump and other Republicans fear that letting more voters cast their ballots early or through the mail will favor Democrats and corrupt the November 2020 election.

They forgot about Utah.

The Beehive State launched its universal vote-by-mail system in 2012 and remains one of the most reliably Republican states in the country.

“You don’t see some sort of dramatic uptick in Democratic success in Utah elections since Utah has adopted vote by mail,” said Damon Cann, a Utah State University political science professor who studies voting administration. “If anything, the Republican domination of elections has strengthened rather than weakened in recent years.”

But you wouldn’t get that impression from the partisan squabble that erupted this past week in Washington over public health directives to curb the spread of the coronavirus clashing with the tradition of polling places attracting crowds on Election Day. The escalating standoff threatens to hold up a fourth tranche of emergency funding to help businesses, states, cities and individuals weather the broad impact of a pandemic that has claimed more than 23,000 lives in the U.S. as of Tuesday.

Democrats say their anticipated $2 billion request would help states extend registration deadlines and expand voting systems beyond in-person balloting as voters in many states and cities across the country are being told to stay home and avoid crowds to slow the spread of the disease.

“Why should we be saying to people, ‘Stand in line for hours,’ when we don’t even want you leaving the house?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Thursday.

But later that same day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Pelosi of trying to leverage the pandemic to advance her party’s agenda.

“You want to hold a bill up because you want to change election law in November, that somehow you think that gives you benefit? That’s disgusting,” he said in a phone call with reporters.

Like Trump, McCarthy suggested that the election would be prone to fraud as state and local officials loosen restrictions on mail-in balloting, allowing more people to vote who would presumably support Democrats from the presidential race on down.

Trump warned earlier that Republicans would “never” be elected again if Democrats succeeded in broadening early and mail-in voting.

But election experts say while voting by mail can be abused, it’s rare and inconsequential. And studies have never found that making voting easier through early voting, same-day registration or vote by mail has favored one party over another, although the research has confirmed that mailing ballots to all voters does increase turnout across the board.

“I don’t think it’s the boogeyman that Donald Trump and Republicans are making it out to be,” said Amelia Showalter, a data scientist who has studied vote by mail’s impact on elections in Utah and Colorado. “It’s just a method of increasing civic participation, basically.”

But a leading proponent of vote by mail said there is a bigger lesson Washington can learn from Utah’s experience.

“The key difference between what we did and what’s trying to happen on the national scene is ours was voluntary,” said state Rep. Steve Eliason, a Republican who sponsored the state’s first vote-by-mail legislation. “It wasn’t crammed down any political subdivision’s throat.”

‘It went viral’

Declining voter turnout was the problem Utah officials were trying to solve when they looked at expanding the existing program of sending absentee ballots to those who requested them to a universal vote by mail for everyone.

For decades, participation by eligible voters in Utah had been dropping and fell below the national average in 2000. Easing restrictions to absentee balloting and registration had modest effects on turnout in the ensuing years. In 2009, a state commission looking to shore up the sagging numbers explored vote by mail, which was well established in Oregon and Washington, as a possible solution. But it wasn’t until Eliason sponsored legislation in 2012 allowing counties to voluntarily conduct elections by mail that the idea took hold in Utah.

Related
Can mail-in voting save the 2020 election?
Who’s in charge? Governors and White House ‘feel their way’ through unprecedented crisis
Sen. Mike Lee says Democrats’ ‘greed’ causes businesses to suffer amid pandemic

Eliason, who lives in the Salt Lake County suburb of Sandy, said both political parties saw the prospect of higher voter turnout working to their advantage so the bill had broad bipartisan support. “Both parties said it was their No. 1 priority that session,” Eliason recalled. “There are not many issues you can say that, so I really had very little pushback.”

One county took up the offer — Duchesne County in remote eastern Utah — and when turnout there increased by more than 5 percentage points, “it went viral,” Eliason said.

Since then, more counties adopted the system every election cycle and November will be the first presidential election where every county in the state will be mailing a ballot to every voter. Colorado and Hawaii also hold universal vote-by-mail elections.

“At the time I ran the bill, I wasn’t thinking of a pandemic,” Eliason said. “We’re one of only five states that can conduct an election by mail and we’re fortunate considering all the upheaval (the pandemic) has caused to the election process.”

What turnout will be in November remains uncertain. But for the first time in more than 20 years, Utah’s voter turnout of 52% exceeded the national average of 50% in 2018.

An alternate universe

Cann said the research he has read has found that easing restrictions on voting doesn’t favor either political party and the political status quo remains unchanged in states that have adopted full vote by mail. Colorado is often considered “purple” — often a swing state in presidential elections and with a congressional delegation nearly evenly split down both sides of isle.

Despite it’s domination by the Republican Party in nearly all levels of government, Showalter found Utah to be the ideal place to study the impact of vote by mail because when she conducted her research in 2016, 21 of the state’s 29 counties had adopted it.

“This was one of the rare instances where we had kind of an alternate universe happening at the same time,” she said. The most illustrative comparison was between Utah County, which had resisted vote by mail, and Salt Lake County, which had launched its system in 2015.

That area of the state confirmed what she found elsewhere: that vote by mail gave a boost in turnout among Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated and “low propensity” voters — those who don’t vote regularly and who are more inclined to vote when the barrier of having to travel to a polling location was removed.

“Low propensity voters — by definition — are not very political or strongly affiliated to a party,” Showalter said.

A more telling indication that vote by mail is party agnostic, according to Utah elections director Justin Lee, is Utah’s 4th Congressional District, which straddles the Utah-Salt Lake County line and has bounced back and forth between Republican and Democratic representation since its creation in 2011.

When Showalter conducted her research, Republican incumbent Mia Love won a second term to represent the 4th District, but two years later when both Utah and Salt Lake Counties offered all-mail voting, she narrowly lost to Democrat Ben McAdams.

“I’m a Democrat and it would be cool to say vote by mail will help us win forever,” said Showalter, co-founder of Pantheon Analytics and former director of digital analytics for President Barrack Obama’s reelection campaign. “But I basically look at it as a reform that helps civic participation,” that gets those who are less political more engaged.

And it’s up to both political parties to take advantage of that, she said.

Voter fraud

Experts like Showalter say more research is needed to nail down the precise impact vote-by-mail has on voter turnout. But one area that all experts on vote by mail agree on is that a well-administered system can spot and eliminate voter fraud.

Eliason, an accountant and a former auditing manager, is convinced voting by mail has more controls to identify and prevent fraud than in-person voting.

“The ability for one person to ‘stuff a ballot box’ would be so much easier under the old system than coordinating with thousands of individual citizens at their home addresses” to send in forged ballots.

The key to identifying fraud is a signature verification system, which is done manually, that can be supplemented with bank-grade verification systems, Cann said. Utah requires clerks who reject a questionable signature to contact the voter to provide a chance to rectify the problem.

In some cases, a questionable signature comes from a voter who’s either having a bad day or acting on misguided intentions.

Eliason recalled hearing about a voter telling a clerk she intentionally wrote her signature differently because she wanted to protect herself from identity fraud.

Utah County elections chief Rozan Mitchell told Washington Monthly that occasionally she’ll discover parents forging signatures to submit a ballot for their out-of-state son or daughter serving a Latter-day Saint mission.

After informing — and alarming — the parents that voting for someone else is illegal, Mitchell calms them down by letting them know she can email their child an absentee ballot.

While Eliason may agree with Democrats in debunking the myths surrounding voting by mail, he joins his Republican colleagues in protesting the spending of billions of dollars to get states to change their voting laws and procedures in the throes of a crisis.

He said voting is a “states rights” issue and Congress has no business weighing in on it.

“Leave us alone and don’t put us further in debt for something that states have power to do, as evidenced by what Utah’s already done,” he said.