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Opinion: Evidence shows Utah’s system of voting works

Conducting an audit when there is no evidence of fraud could further damage the public’s trust in the election process

An elections coordinator gathers ballots in Salt Lake County.
Elections coordinator Michael Fife gathers election envelopes to string and make sure no ballots are left inside in the Elections Management Center at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. For decades, Utah has been seen nationally as a leader in election administration.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

For decades, Utah has been seen nationally as a leader in election administration.

After the Florida voting debacle in 2000, Utah, under former Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, successfully implemented a new mode of voting. Gone were the outdated punch card systems with their dangling chads, replaced by electronic devices. We and others studied this implementation and found it was clear that voters retained a high level of confidence in fair and accurate vote counts as the state transitioned to the new way of voting.

Then, as those touch screens needed to be replaced, Utah followed other Western states in implementing vote-by-mail systems. Utah allowed counties to opt into the new system. Over only a few elections, the new system proved itself, with no substantial evidence of fraud, and the system was adopted statewide.

The voting system was not “rigged.” Indeed, absentee voting and voting by mail have been championed in many states by Republicans and Democrats alike. It was not a partisan issue.

In 2017, we presented research on Utah’s vote-by-mail experience at the American Political Science Association annual meeting. Using the KBYU-Utah Colleges Exit Poll data, along with a phone and internet survey of early voters, both with large samples, we compared voters’ confidence and satisfaction with different modes of voting. The modes included voting by mail, voting in person on Election Day and voting early in person.

Our findings:

Election Day voters expressed less confidence in the electoral process than those who voted early or by mail.

In terms of the voting experience, Donald Trump voters were just as satisfied with their voting experience as Hillary Clinton and Evan McMullin voters .

Republicans were just as satisfied with their voting experience as Democrats.

Even in 2016 we found evidence of a “Trump effect,” where Trump voters expressed less confidence in the electoral process than Clinton or McMullin voters. Note the concern was with the process generally, not voting by mail.

Some in the Utah Legislature are now calling for an audit of the mail ballots in 2020. It is claimed that there was fraud and abuse of the process. The Utah rhetoric echoes the claims of former President Trump and those in states like Arizona that have recently completed an expensive audit.

All of these claims are false. Election administration colleagues of ours around the country have closely examined the 2020 election and have found “the U.S. electoral system confronted and passed its most severe test in recent memory.” [Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III, “The Miracle and Tragedy of the 2020 U.S. Election.” Journal of Democracy 32 (April 2021).] Those who administered an election during a pandemic are heroes, but so too are the voters who cast ballots in record numbers.

Rather than castigate these officials and falsely claim widespread fraud, we should celebrate the success of a free and fair election.

Between 1982 and 2016, Utah colleges and universities administered a statewide exit poll that was highly accurate and provided valuable information to the Utah public and elected officials. To administer such a large statewide project meant we worked closely with county clerks. As a rule, Utah has had competent and professional election administrators.

More fundamentally, Trump and those who have spread the falsehoods about a “stolen election” in 2020 have done serious harm to the trust and confidence voters have in the voting process. As we found in 2016, Utah voters were very positive about how Utah elections are run.

In a democracy it is imperative that those who do not prevail in an election accept the outcome of the election. We have had several close elections in Utah where candidates such as Mia Love, Jim Matheson and Ben McAdams have done just that. They deserve our respect. To conduct an audit of the 2020 election would be a great misuse of public funds. Perhaps more concerning, conducting an audit when there is no evidence of fraud could further damage the public’s trust in the election process.

David B. Magleby is an emeritus professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Damon Cann is a professor of political science at Utah State University.