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Voting by mail is not a sinister political plot — just ask Utah

SHARE Voting by mail is not a sinister political plot — just ask Utah
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A voter drops off their ballot in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For many people, the pandemic has led to greater unity — among friends, within neighborhoods and in families. That’s an encouraging, and perhaps unexpected, side-effect of having to isolate at home.

Politics, however, keeps creeping at its petty pace from day to day, to butcher Shakespeare. The latest absurdity is the notion that voting by mail would lead to an increase in voter fraud. Republicans are making this a sticking point in the approval of more stimulus money. Democrats want to give states money to let people vote in ways that don’t require them to stand next to each other in polling places.

If I’ve learned one thing through nearly four decades in this business, it is that both major parties will seek for any advantage in the election process. But this one doesn’t make sense.

Voter fraud is most effective when the bad guys can round up and change millions of votes at the same time, which, even though there is no evidence showing this ever has been done in the United States, could theoretically be accomplished only electronically. 

Changing votes one at a time on paper ballots would be as ridiculous as trying to commit identity fraud by stealing one actual credit card at a time from shoppers. This is the computer age, folks. You get much farther by stealing a database.

Which isn’t to say voter fraud with paper ballots never has happened. In his 1948 Senate race, Lyndon Johnson allegedly got dead people in one rural Texas precinct to rise up and vote for him in alphabetical order. That one had to involve a lot of on-sight, polling-station co-conspirators, and no one was voting from home and mailing anything in, just as no one was comparing ballot signatures to voter registration signatures — something vote-by-mail states, including Utah, do today. 

And yet worries about fraud seem to top the list of concerns some Republicans in Washington, including the president, are pushing in resistance to a call for mail-in voting to replace Election Day balloting during a pandemic.

Utah is the best answer to that. Few states are more Republican, and yet Utah has done mail-in balloting more or less since 2012 with few problems, at all. And the Republican majority is as strong as ever.

But then, we’ve done same-day registration here, too, without a glitch. Maybe it’s easier to do politically charged things like that in a state where one party dominates. No one really worries about giving an advantage to the minority party. But the state’s experience also provides a sharp contrast to those on the national stage who keep warning about scary things.

In an excellent report published by the Deseret News this week, Washington reporter Matt Brown quotes Amelia Showalter, a data scientist who has studied Utah and Colorado, two states that vote by mail. The biggest byproduct of that system seems to be that it increases voter turnout, which had been a problem in Utah.

Brown also quotes Damon Cann, a Utah State University political science professor who studies voting administration. Making it easier to vote doesn’t favor either party, he said. Showalter said research shows voting by mail favors people who otherwise don’t vote regularly, and they, not surprisingly, aren’t strongly tied to any party.

Twenty years ago, after hanging chads and endless recounts muddled the presidential election, Congress gave states money to help them buy newfangled computer voting machines for the 21st century. I remember the emails and phone calls I got back then from people worried about voter fraud. 

Frankly, it’s a good thing that the nation fixates on preventing fraud. Election integrity is vital to national security. But the bigger lesson from that experience is that Congress too easily throws money away on what it thinks will fix a problem when states, and the people, often find simpler solutions.

In Utah, that solution was voting by mail, which happened voluntarily and without much debate.

In that sense, one Republican, Utah state Rep. Steve Eliason, has the only valid opposing argument to this nationwide push. Congress shouldn’t cram vote-by-mail down the throats of unwilling states, he said. Let it happen naturally.

Pandemics, however, have forced a lot of things on people. And certainly, Wisconsin’s insistence on making people stand in line to vote during a recent primary was an example of local government and petty politics at its worst. 

No one knows if we’ll still be socially distancing in November. Only one thing is certain. Utahns won’t have to worry about it while they vote from their kitchen tables — a great solution they discovered quite on their own years ago.