How to remedy the West’s fractured election policies

Written by Derek Monson

March 22, 2023

Originally published in Deseret News.

The 2024 presidential election cycle is slowly building momentum with a new headline each day speculating on who will, or will not, announce a candidacy. As the campaigns accelerate, they will add fuel to the fire of election policy debates in the West. Two personal stories broadly capture these debates and how they affect individual voters.

The first is the story of my wife, Melanie. As mother of our three children (two diagnosed with ADHD), she appreciates and supports Utah’s vote-by-mail system. She describes the last time she tried to vote in person on Election Day as “stressful and pressured” — an extended wait in a long line with two kids in tow and a third on the way — and calls vote by mail “easy, simple and straightforward.”

Rather than being forced to vote in a restricted time window on a single day, no matter how well that day works with our unique challenges, vote by mail means she can submit her ballot in a way that makes sense for her — dropping it off early or on Election Day at a voting center or drop box.

The second story involves a public statement I heard while preparing to testify to a Wyoming legislative committee about ranked choice voting. Brian Miller, a Wyoming resident, made his point succinctly: “Why would we complicate the voting and election process for the people?”, which he believes reforms such as ranked choice voting would do.

Miller is concerned that adding complexity to voting may introduce doubt in elections among the electorate. If traditional ways of casting a ballot have downsides such as being more expensive, he believes we ought to be willing to spend the money necessary to do elections right.

Ensuring trust

The variety of experiences and viewpoints on elections in Western states leave policy approaches to elections as varied as Westerners themselves.

In Utah, elections are primarily vote by mail, and there is an opt-in pilot program for cities and towns to use ranked choice voting if they want. Legislative proposals to restrict vote by mail and ranked choice voting were all defeated.

Wyoming is not a vote-by-mail state. Wyoming lawmakers recently rejected a proposal to duplicate Utah’s ranked choice voting pilot program. 

Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Oregon are primarily vote-by-mail election states, along with Utah. But Nevada took a large step last year toward moving to a system in which all candidates for federal office run in the same primary, and then the final five move on to the November election, which is a ranked choice election — the system Alaska currently uses for its federal offices. 

This diversity of approaches to voting is under a general assault by those motivated by concerns stemming from the 2020 presidential election. On the one hand, some assail any voting method other than in-person voting, on Election Day only, as somehow unreliable. On the other hand, some use hyperbolic historical comparisons and accusations of malicious intent to assault sound election security reforms.

Partisan concern over who won past elections and how supporters of the losing side responded to electoral loss flows in a constant undercurrent to the river of our election policy debate. We can and should strive for better than that.

Forming sound election policy begins with sound election policy principles. The ability to choose our own representation in government through free and fair elections lies at the heart of the American experiment in free self-government. Public trust in the civic institution of voting — in its fairness and the integrity of the results — is the lifeblood of that institution.

The importance of elections to freedom and equality in America means that policymakers, activists and voters should have something higher than partisan interest in mind when seeking to influence or change how we vote. Election reform as an exercise in increasing partisan power destroys public trust in elections and corrupts the heart of self-government. At the same time, no realistic voting reform idea or election policy debate can ignore the power politics at play, because doing so leaves us with the status quo of partisan division and polarization. 

The Utah way

Sound state election policies should be grounded in the goal of expanding general access to voting while increasing the difficulty of voter fraud. This builds public trust in elections by ensuring that elections fairly offer any eligible voter the chance for their voice to be heard, and by keeping elections free from malign influence or manipulation.

Seen through the lens of these principles, sound election policy has as much to do with administering election policy the right way as it does with selecting the “right” voting method. Sutherland Institute research that I authored concluded, for instance, that vote by mail can be “a secure means of voting that offers voters sufficient access to voting.” If policymakers begin vote by mail on a small scale, rolled out organically as election administrators and voters gain experience with primarily vote-by-mail elections over a decade or so — as Utah did — vote by mail can both be done securely and expand access to voting. My wife’s voting experience attests to this.

On the other hand, jumping blindly into a universal vote-by-mail election with little experience running such elections (as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many states to do), is not a great introduction to vote by mail. There are similarly better and worse ways to do ranked choice voting and in-person voting on Election Day. The important thing for policymakers is learning the best ways to administer each approach to voting and determining where and how each might be used to bolster public trust in elections.

The stories of both Brian and Melanie have legitimate insights for how we run elections. But our currently divided politics struggles to produce policy ideas on that basis. Too often, groups on all sides push an election reform agenda — often a partisan one — based on only one experience or point of view and with an outcome in mind based on partisan political power.

If Western policymakers will instead pursue election reforms based on sound principles, reliable data and the broad variety of voters’ experiences and viewpoints, they can promote public trust in elections and protect the civic foundations of American democracy.

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