Ryan Curtis contributed to this article.
Same day voter registration came one step closer to becoming a reality Tuesday, as Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck successfully advanced HB 156 – Election Day Voter Registration.
Last legislative session, Houck ran HB 91, which advanced to the Senate but died in the final minutes of the 2013 session. At issue last year was the ability for county clerks, particularly those in smaller counties, to comply with a law that would require them to investigate and count the ballots of valid voters who happen to register the day of the election. This year, Houck has worked around these problems with HB 156, which is a carbon copy of HB 91, with one notable difference: HB 156 creates a pilot program where counties can opt in to test and see how viable same day registration is in the beehive state. This subtle but important difference was welcome with open arms in the House Government Operations Committee.
During her afternoon testimony, Chavez-Houck outlined the various scenarios that may result in a person being unable to vote in an election through no fault of their own. For example those that happen to move within the state from one county to another are able to receive what is known as a provisional ballot that would ultimately be counted. Another resident from outside the state, however, who was unaware that his registration was lost may not know that voters need to receive confirmation of their registration, would not be able to participate in an election – even if the voter has done their due diligence.
Representative Jack Draxler (Republican – Logan) seemed somewhat surprised that the bill did not cost the state or participating counties any amount. It was later explained by Jennifer Morrell, Weber County Elections Director, that the collection of provisional ballots and processing of new voter registration was a regular part of the clerk’s general responsibilities and that no additional costs would be inured by their, or presumably any, clerk’s office.
Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan) did ask about the potential for voter fraud in the system. To this end, Morrell explained that whenever anyone votes with a provisional ballot, as HB 156 would require, that ballot is held until the voter can be properly identified and counted. She informed the committee that such information is held in a state voter database, implying that it would be difficult for a person to jump from one county to another and successfully vote in multiple elections.
“We are so excited about this,” Morrell concluded, “we come here with the full support of our Weber County Clerk… We think this is a good bill and we hope to be one of the first counties in the state to apply to participate in this pilot project.”
“Last year, Lieutenant Governor [Spencer] Cox, when he was Representative Cox, was actually a co-sponsor of HB 91. This was something that he felt strongly [about] and worked with Representative Chavez-Houck on. We understand that there were concerns about the impact and cost, and Representative Chavez-Houck worked hard to come up with a way forward… Lets get some real data, lets figure out if this is something that we can do here in Utah,” said Mark Thomas with the Lieutenant Governor’s office, which is charged with running elections across the state.
Bryan McKenzie, Elections Manager for Davis County, noted that Davis County was strongly opposed to HB 91 and same day registration, but confessed that “we are only guessing as to what may happen… [but] we are strongly supportive of this bill. In fact, we will be racing Weber County to be one of the first to participate in this study.”
“We won’t be dealing with hypotheticals any more, we will be dealing with at least a sample of what might, or might not happen,” noted Chavez-Houck. Members of the committee seemed to agree by giving a unanimous vote of approval, passing it out of committee with a 7-0 vote.