Utah counties and towns considering vote-by-mail
Switch seen as way to save per-vote costs, increase turnout
Although we are a nation built on westward expansion, when it comes to vote-by-mail it’s a movement built more on eastern expansion.
Washington and Oregon are completely vote-by-mail, in the most recent presidential election more people voted by mail in California than cast ballots at the polls and the Colorado legislature recently approved a bill that will send a ballot to every registered voter.
Recently, several towns and counties throughout Utah have been considering making the switch from polling-place based elections to vote-by-mail elections.
“Over the past few years several state legislators have been excited by the idea of vote-by-mail,” said Mark Thomas chief deputy/director of elections Lieutenant Governor’s office. “They have passed several laws to make it easier to conduct election by-mail.”
According to Thomas, it used to be that a precinct could be a vote-by-mail (VBM) precinct if it had 500 or fewer voters and the county legislative body voted in favor of that precinct going VBM.
The law was changed to allow any precinct, regardless of size, to be VBM. Also, it is now the decision of the election officer as to whether a precinct is VBM and not the county legislative body.
In 2012, the Legislature also passed a law requiring the Lt. Governor's Office to study how to administer an election that takes place no later than 2015 in which all registered voters received a ballot in the mail and a person may vote by mailing in the completed ballot or vote in-person at an early voting polling location or election day vote center.
“With this study in mind, our office is very interested in the data and feedback we hope to receive from the municipalities and counties that have or plan to conduct their election all by-mail,” Thomas said. “We are only in the initial stages of conducting the study, part of which is because we are waiting for the data from these elections.”
In Weber County, the elections office is knee-deep in the first all vote-by-mail election — a special bond election for the library. According to County Clerk Ricky Hatch, the library board was anxious to have the bond issue decided as quickly as possible with a June election and the county commission was concerned about low turnout for a June election—average June voter turnout is just 14 percent.
“The by-mail option uniquely satisfied the desires of various parties within the county,” explained Hatch. “Since statistics show that by-mail elections turnout is 10-15 percentage points higher than polling-place elections, and with the state legislature’s desire to look at vote by mail, we thought it would be a good fit for this bond election. The commissioners liked the idea of a by-mail election, and one of them even mentioned that unless the election were by mail, he would not vote to have it in June.”
Hatch and Elections Director Jennifer Morrell have worked hard to promote the vote-by-mail election option, not just for the countywide library vote, but also for municipal elections. Hatch even penned an op-ed for the local paper in support of VBM.
Although the VBM elections are more expensive than traditional elections, Hatch said the county’s analysis shows that when the cost per voted ballot is taken into consideration, a VBM election is more economical.
“Once turnout hits 20 percent, the cost per voted ballot is lower with by-mail than with traditional elections. The other benefit is that the incremental costs of by-mail elections is much lower than with traditional elections,” Hatch said. “For example, a 40 percent turnout in a by-mail election (which is almost triple the average turnout) costs only 13 percent more than a 15 percent turnout, whereas in a traditional election, the cost for a 40 percent turnout would cost 47 percent more.”
Hatch added that by-mail elections are automatically scalable, meaning they can handle and 80 percent turnout just as well as a 20 percent turnout, with no visible impact to the voter.
“An unanticipated high turnout in a traditional election would result in long lines at the polls, frustrated voters and poll workers, and negative press,” Hatch said.
Not needing to hire poll workers and more evenly distributing the workload in the elections office were also cited as benefits of making the switch to VBM.
By and large it has been fairly smooth sailing so far for Weber County, although there have been adjustments.
“We’ve had to plan a bit earlier for the election, so the printers could receive the ballots and envelopes in time. We redesigned the physical layout of our elections office, dedicating more space to the secure storage of by-mail ballots,” Hatch explained. “We’ve had to fully redesign our mail-in ballot process, because of the volume. We require that whenever ballots are being transported, batched, opened, and scanned, that two elections workers are involved. No ballot is ever touched or moved by one person only.”
Hatch said something that the office didn’t expect was the magnitude of ballots that were returned by the post office as undeliverable. The elections staff researched many of these ballots, and many of them are in fact valid addresses, so Hatch said he is not sure why they were returned.
“We’re still working with the Post Office on that,” Hatch said.
The City of Riverdale, which is located in Weber County, will hold their municipal election by mail this year as well.
The county is waiting to see how things go with the library election — complete on June 24 — and in Riverdale before making any decisions about whether or not to do more vote-by-mail elections.
Of course not everyone has been quick to embrace the notion of vote-by-mail. Several towns — Layton, Farmington, Syracuse — have chosen not to move to VBM, despite the cost-savings sales pitches from elections officials.
“The county officials have been very supportive of this election format,” Hatch said. “We have received a handful of concerned calls from voters. Often, once we explain the process and controls, they are satisfied that it is a controlled process. But the resistance is very minor so far.”
In Sunset — which is located in Davis County — in March, the city council voted to move its upcoming municipal election to VBM, however, in April the council reversed course saying that it did not want to be Davis County’s only “guinea pig” for a VBM election.
Still, despite the resistance from some, towns like Riverdale, West Jordan and Cottonwood Heights are moving forward with vote-by-mail.
“Having jurisdictions move to VBM allows election officials, including our office, to gather data and information on the process. This data will help provide policy makers with the information it needs to make a good decision,” Thomas said. “It also helps voters to begin to understand the VBM process so if the state or other jurisdictions decides to go by-mail, they have some understanding of it.”