Vote by Mail
In Utah, the vote-by-mail concept emerged as a proposal from a panel created by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in 2009 to study Utah’s low voter turnout and suggest ways to improve it. Since then, many communities in Utah have implemented vote-by-mail balloting.
In 1998 Oregon became the first state to conduct balloting exclusively by mail. In 2011 Washington went to all vote by mail, followed by Colorado in 2014. As the longest-running state with a vote-by-mail program, Oregon has been the subject of a number of studies aimed at quantifying the program’s effect on voter turnout. Initial studies were optimistic about vote by mail’s ability to get more people to vote. However, later researchers were unable to duplicate those results, instead finding that while there was a bump in turnout when vote by mail was first implemented, the bump didn’t last longer than a cycle or two.
Seventy Utah cities used vote-by-mail programs in 2015, and all of them experienced increased voter turnout. During the 2016 presidential election, 21 of 29 counties in the state used vote by mail, and Utah saw record turnout, surpassing the historically high numbers from the Mitt Romney-fueled 2012 election. While 2016’s 1.1 million voters set a record for total votes in Utah, at 80 percent it still lagged behind elections in the 1960s, when turnout approached 90 percent. If Utah mirrors other states’ experiences with vote by mail, those increases will subside as the novelty wears off.
Where research has to some degree been able to show a link between higher voter turnout and mail in ballots is in municipal and special elections – elections that traditionally have lower turnout, likely because many voters aren’t aware they are happening. Getting a ballot in the mail appears to remind these voters of the election and motivate them to vote.
Research that links mail-in ballots and an increase in voting is lacking, so why do states (including Utah) continue to push vote-by-mail elections? One reason is that it’s generally fairly popular because it does make voting easier and more convenient for people who already vote consistently – though many still prefer the traditional voting booth on voting day with its accompanying community camaraderie, and they lament its loss.
But perhaps the most effective reason driving the push for mail-in ballots is a simple one – politicians really like it. Elected officials in charge of managing the logistics of elections like the mail process because it means fewer polling locations and voting machines – and the more ballots they receive ahead of Election Day, the more time they have to tally votes. Also in favor of mail-in voting are political parties and their candidates for office. A big part of their job in an election is just getting their supporters to the polls. Traditionally that has meant a very small window for their get-out-the-vote efforts. However, with vote by mail, parties and candidates have a much longer period of time to identify their voters, ensure they’re registered and get them to send in their ballots.
But although vote by mail makes politicians’ jobs easier – and can be more convenient for some voters – its unintended consequences have gotten at least one Utah county in legal trouble. In 2014, San Juan County switched to a vote-by-mail system. By doing so, it was able to greatly reduce the number of physical polling locations on Election Day. Consequently, members of the Navajo Nation sued the county, claiming many tribal members live in remote areas of the county where access to mail is intermittent. The Navajo Nation lawsuit also points out that Navajo isn’t a written language, so ballots can’t be printed in their native tongue, and without local polling places, interpreters are unable to help voters. And if members of the tribe voted in person instead of using the mailed ballots, they had to travel two hours or more to do so.
In 2016, Salt Lake County used vote by mail, so it offered far fewer voting locations than usual. However, in-person turnout was larger than expected, and in some places the lines to vote were two hours long, with reports of some people giving up and going home. In response, the county committed to using far more polling locations in the future, somewhat negating the advantages of the mail-in system.
Despite the lack of research showing whether vote by mail gets more citizens to vote, and despite the costs of its convenience, vote by mail continues to expand in Utah and nationwide. Because of the vote-by-mail drawbacks that have started to surface, leaders should monitor and re-evaluate the system in the coming years.
Research Paper: Voting by Mail and Turnout in Oregon
Research Paper: Does Voting by Mail Increase Participation?
Utah Foundation Report: Voting in Utah: Analyzing Current Practices and Future Options for Utah Voters
ACLU & Navajo Nation: Lawsuit