Utah adopted vote-by-mail balloting in 2015 and now uses it statewide. Utah is one of five states (Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington) to have a statewide ballot option. Most of the remaining states have a modified version of voting by mail — known as no-excuse absentee voting — but they have less experience in solving issues that may arise. Utah could model for the nation how a good vote-by-mail system works.
Voting by mail has been well-accepted in Utah. Justin Lee, head of Utah’s Election Office, reports that about 90% of voters have voted by mail previously. The general election ballot will be mailed to registered voters on Oct. 13 this year. Voters can return their ballot using the U.S. Postal Service or special election drop boxes in specified locations in each county. In-person voting remains available. Provisions for outdoor voting are allowed in lieu of indoor voting and are especially important if a health emergency is declared within seven days of the election.
Some of the advantages of voting by mail are: (1) It avoids long lines and wait times on election day, thus greatly reducing health risks; (2) It allows voters time to study the ballot and seek information on candidates and ballot questions; (3) It makes voting more convenient because it does not require voters to show up at a polling place; (4) It increases early voting, reducing the effectiveness of last-minute dirty campaigning, and (5) The use of paper mail-in ballots creates a paper trail for auditing purposes.
Allegations that vote-by-mail increases fraud are largely unsubstantiated. States, including Utah, that use vote-by-mail have documented only minuscule fraud problems, far fewer than would be needed to affect the outcome. In Utah, the rare problem of parents signing absentee ballots for their missionaries was discovered quickly because the forged signature did not match the signature of the registered voter. In other words, the authentication procedure identified forged signatures.
A theoretical problem called “ballot harvesting” (where someone returns a group of ballots, say, from a nursing home and that person might influence the voters as they complete their ballots) has also been virtually nonexistent. It is now handled preventively in Utah by an updated 2020 statute prohibiting its use except in unusual circumstances such as disability, age or illness. We believe it would be wise this election year if election officials publicized state and county procedures to authenticate vote by mail ballots and guard against fraud.
Given the extent of misinformation being circulated throughout the country, we are pleased to see that Utah election officials are required to reach every registered voter with an explanation of the procedures and timelines to facilitate voting by mail. Election officials are to work closely with the U.S. Post Office to ensure that ballots are delivered to voters on time and that return ballots are date stamped at the post office on the day received. In rural areas, where drop boxes are few and polling places are distant, voters are especially dependent on good service from the Postal Service. It is critically important that all votes received on time by the post office be counted.
As voters, we have important responsibilities, too. We must watch for and read our ballot packets and comply with the instructions. If we don’t receive a packet on time, we must call the county clerk’s office and request one no later than seven days before the election (preferably sooner, of course).
If we are returning our ballots by mail, we must do so no later than Nov. 2 — the day before election day — and preferably far before that to ensure plenty of time for the Postal Service to deliver them to the county clerk’s office in a timely fashion.
We can contact the county clerk’s office to be sure that our return ballot was received. We must understand that voting by mail slows the counting of ballots. Election results will take longer to tabulate.
Finally, we must not forget to vote. If voters do their job and election officials and the Postal Service do theirs, we will be a great model for the country to follow in coming elections.
Dixie Huefner is a retired special education professor at the University of Utah. Sheryl Allen is a former Utah state legislator and former president of the Davis Board of Education. Both are writing on behalf of the Utah Citizens’ Counsel, a nonpartisan group of seniors with collective public policy experience.