Three bills that seek to simplify the election process were debated in the Government Operations Interim Committee Wednesday. “We, as the legislature, obviously feel very strongly about people voting and we as legislators don’t want to do anything that would inhibit voter turnout,” said Senator Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem), the sponsor of all three pieces of legislation.
Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch was on hand to explain the reasoning behind each bill to the committee.
The first bill is Absentee Ballot Amendments, which would adjust the deadline for counties to mail out ballots from 28 to 21 days. Hatch says that clerks have received several calls from voters asking why their ballots were sent so early. Because a lot of average voters don’t usually pay attention to campaigns until the final weeks, sending ballots a month in advance could increase the chance of uninformed votes taking place. Hatch also said that moving the deadline closer to Election Day would be less of a strain on staff members and save money as well.
The second piece of legislation, Ballot Amendments, would establish the order in which races appear on the ballot. “Generally, we [county clerks] have a good feel for how they should appear but sometimes there’s differences. For example, this year some counties will have a transportation tax issue on the ballot. However, there are also many municipal races on the ballot and some discussion among the county clerks was ‘What ballot race appears first? Do we put the transportation ballot first or do we put the city elections first?’,” said Hatch. It also makes some minor adjustments, such as giving county clerks the authority to print ballots on both sides of the paper and providing some clarification on where write-in candidates should be placed.
Both bills were unanimously passed out with favorable recommendations.
The third bill, Election Notice Amendments, received a chilly reception from some legislators. During each election cycle, officials must run a notice in the newspaper informing voters of where, by precinct, they can vote. Under the bill, county clerks would be given three options instead. They include sticking with the current policy of placing a notice in the newspaper, running a smaller notice with basic election information, the phone number and address of the county clerk’s office, and a link to vote.utah.gov; and sending a postcard to each registered voter with their polling place. Hatch says that newspaper ads end up being too cryptic, due to the simple fact that voters don’t always know which voting precinct they reside in. Much more detailed information can also be found on the Internet.
Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) understands the great cost of running a newspaper ad, but thinks it still serves value. “If we err on this kind of thing, we ought to be erring on the side of doing everything we can to get voters educated and turned out as opposed to feeling like we have to pick and choose between various options.”
“I do not think it is our responsibility as legislators or clerks to take responsibility for low voter turnout. Low voter turnout is abysmal, but it is not our responsibility. It’s the individual citizens responsibility. It’s a right that has been fought for them and paid for with the blood of patriots and if they want to choose to ignore it I’d just assume that people who don’t know or care didn’t turn out last minute and would be uninformed voters anyway,” said Dayton.
Trent Eyre, acting president of the Utah Press Association, expressed concern about the legislation. He believes it is imperative that the public receive a broad notification of upcoming elections. He noted that running a newspaper ad would help get the message to unregistered voters as well. Eyre also represents the Utah Media Coalition and Utah Media Group, which is a company jointly owned by the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News. It is responsible for the printing, delivery, and advertising content of both newspapers.
Justin Lee, Utah’s deputy director of elections, supports the concept of the legislation and believes it would be helpful, especially in rural counties where newspapers don’t dominate. “We appreciate the approach of the bill and that it gives options to the clerks.”
King made a substitute motion to hold the bill until more information could be collected. Dayton felt that the motion was inappropriate and in the end, King’s substitute motion died on a party-line vote, with King, Senator Jani Iwamoto (Democrat – Holladay), and Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – East Millcreek) voting in favor. The bill was then given a favorable nod on the same vote.