Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert recently addressed students at Utah Valley University where he and UVU President Matthew Holland hosted a discussion of the importance of civic engagement in government. Herbert, a former National Governors Association (NGA) chairman was on the Orem campus where the NGA sponsored the Presidential Commision on Debates as part of the organization’s States and Debates Initiative.
The Importance of Civic Engagement
Stressing the importance of civic participation, Governor Herbert said that voting was the very least a citizen can do for the privilege of living in America. He emphasized the significance of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. constitution which granted the right to vote to 18-20-year-olds. The amendment became law on July 1, 1971, only three months and eight days after being submitted to the states for ratification, the quickest constitutional amendment ever to be ratified. Herbert noted that his participation in the Vietnam war made him a strong proponent of allowing eighteen-year-olds to vote. The Governor also emphasized the significance of vote by mail (VBM) as a modern day boost to the electoral process. What he seemed less enthusiastic about was the idea of same-day registration (SDR) on election day.
While only eight Utah counties offer SDR and the data to determine the effect on voter turnout will only be formally evaluated after the 2016 general election, national data is already in. According to the United States Election Project, which looked at the voter turnout rates from the voting-eligible population from 2014, seven of the top ten states in voter turnout were SDR states.
Contrasted against the limited opportunity for SDR, the Beehive State has readily adopted VBM. Twenty-one of Utah’s twenty-nine counties currently offer mail-in voting and all 29 offer absentee (mail-in) ballots on request. Eight Utah counties that remain with traditional polling: Box Elder, Carbon, Daggett, Emery, Piute, Tooele, Utah, and Washington. Some only offer mail-in voting, including San Juan County in the Four Corners area.
San Juan’s Native American Voting
Utah’s San Juan County began conducting elections by mail in 2014. This meant that members of the Navajo Nation who live in the area could no longer physically vote in their own village or at the nearby high school. If they wanted to vote in person, they would have to drive to the only remaining polling place at the county seat in Monticello, a 400-mile round trip from Navajo Mountain.
VBM advocates say mail-in ballots remove logistical obstacles from getting to the polls, that mailed ballots provide cost savings to counties and that VBM provides greater accuracy and voter satisfaction. Nationwide, the reported impacts on voter turnout of VBM vary. Factors like highly contested races and whether the election involves a presidential or gubernatorial race and early voting also impact voter turnout throughout the nation. Research suggests VBM and SDR favor specific and contrasting voter demographics.
Utah Political Capitol set out to determine answers to questions like, “What are the costs and benefits of SDV and VBM?” and “Which demographics are more likely to benefit from each voting option?”
Vote By Mail
A 2015 study reported that the Utah cities and counties which voted by mail increased voter turnout. And, cities with numerous options including SDR are more likely to have a higher turnout. The Utah Foundation sampled 70 cities providing VBM and found that Utah cities conducting all VBM elections saw an average increase in turnout from 21 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2015.
VBM has been criticized in that it mobilizes people already predisposed to vote such as long-term residents and registered partisans who turn out at higher rates regardless of the availability of VBM; they add that VBM puts people who move frequently at a disadvantage, specifically low-income households and residents of dense urban areas move more frequently – minorities, young people, singles, and divorced people move at above-average rates as well. Almost one in three renters moved compared to one in 11 homeowners over the course of the study and Households that have co-habitants with different last names or new roommates can have their mail withheld if the addressee is “unknown to the delivery employee.”
Derek Brenchley, special assistant to Utah’s Lieutenant Governor (whose office oversees elections) stated, “Utah law does not prohibit forwarding ballots, but I believe standard USPS regulations prohibit it.” It has been documented that VBM is also more susceptible to fraud including forgery, coercion, vote buying, and misappropriation of absentee ballots. The fact that voting by mail does not require an ID makes the process more vulnerable to fraud and the increased scrutiny by photo ID for traditional voters can sometimes eliminate eligible voters. With VBM, the voting process remains only as secure as the postal service makes it. Tallies of undelivered ballots are not maintained at the state level, but if thousands of undelivered mail-in ballots returned in southwest Florida are any indication, many feel the state should do so.
Same Day Registration
Originally, four counties including Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, and Kane, were enrolled in a pilot study to see the impact of SDR on voter turnout. Since then, five other counties have added this option: Cache, Millard, San Juan, and Sanpete.
Those counties currently in the program represent a variety of population areas in the state. After three years and the 2016 General Election, the Lieutenant Governor’s office will analyze feedback from clerks and voters along with other information to decide if the program should be implemented permanently across the state. As mentioned previously, national data with a significantly higher sample size shows seven of the top ten states in voter turnout were Election Day Registration, SDR states. The data also suggests that the people who benefit less from VBM benefit more from SDR; such as minorities, younger voters, singles, and divorced people. In addition, SDR is a safety net for legitimate voters that have been removed from or didn’t make it to the voter rolls for whatever reason. Still, the Governor downplayed the significance of SDR suggesting that people who take advantage of SDR are less-informed voters.
Why this matters
In 2014, Utah’s turnout rate was around 7.5 percentage points below the nation’s average and since 1996, Utah’s turnout rate has consistently been below the national average. Utah’s efforts to increase voter turnout must be informed by the fact that in addition to pumping up the numbers, there are likely inherent biases in voting procedures that could further disenfranchise marginalized populations. Considering this week’s NGA forum at UVU was designed to get out the youth vote, many feel, as the data suggests, that there are procedural changes in Utah’s elections that would have far greater impact.