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What the midterm election tells us about vote by mail in Utah

Written by Derek Monson

November 18, 2022

After enduring weeks of polarizing rhetoric and campaign ads ad nauseam, millions of American voters tuned in with interest on election night. Many believed they would learn that night which of their candidates won their elections and who would be in charge of Congress for the next two years. 

Nevada’s and Arizona’s election systems frustrated that expectation in the highest-profile, competitive statewide races. Those states took the better part of a week to announce final results. On the other hand, Utah’s election system largely met voter expectations in its highest-profile, competitive statewide race. Interestingly, all of these states rely heavily on vote by mail for their elections. 

Significant delays in tabulating final election results risks real damage to public trust in the institution of free and fair elections. As Peggy Noonan recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal: 

Long counts are not only sloppy, they are abusive. It is in the delay between polls closed and outcome announced that the mischief begins. It’s where conspiracism takes hold. They stole the boxes with the ballots last Thursday—my cousin’s friend saw it. It is looking for trouble. America isn’t a place where you need to look for trouble. 

By contrast, timely announcement of final results in competitive races bolsters election integrity by diminishing the space in which conspiracy theories can take hold.  

How could neighboring states, all relying on vote by mail, have such divergent election night results? 

Nevada

Nevada’s vote-by-mail rules allow ballots to be postmarked up to Election Day. This means that significant numbers of ballots can be arriving at vote-counting centers up to five days after Election Day. This was a major driver in vote counting delays in Nevada’s U.S. Senate race.

Additionally, Nevada’s voter rolls have been criticized for being poorly maintained. This means that many more ballots were sent out than should have been, which could potentially lead to further delays in reporting final results as election administrators’ estimates of ballots still outstanding rely on flawed registration lists. 

Arizona

In Arizona, the delays in final results for their elections for governor, Congress and U.S. Senate were driven by different factors. A major culprit was the unprecedented number of vote-by-mail ballots being returned in person on Election Day. It is suspected that this occurred because many election activists and candidates for office in Arizona sewed distrust of vote by mail and discouraged voters from returning ballots early or by mail.  As a result, Arizona vote-counting centers were understaffed and ill-equipped to promptly count the number of Election Day ballots they received.

Utah

By contrast, vote by mail in Utah did not produce comparable delays. This is in part because Utah has much more experience with vote by mail: the state began allowing counties to rely on vote by mail for their elections more than a decade ago. The organic expansion of vote by mail throughout the state over a number of election cycles has allowed voters and election administrators to gain experience with vote by mail in ways that have likely prevented significant election mishaps before they went statewide  

Utah’s vote-by-mail system requires ballots returned by mail to be postmarked before Election Day. This reduces how long election administrators have to wait beyond Election Day to tabulate final results. 

Utah also proactively maintains its voter registration lists. There are procedures in place to discover and remove duplicate registrations as well as the registrations of those who have died or left the state. This eliminates many of the problems associated with ballots sent out inappropriately. 

Finally, Utah voters’ years of experience with vote by mail has created a comfort level with the system that neighboring states do not enjoy. Utah has not experienced unprecedented numbers of ballots returned in unexpected ways, perhaps because Utah voters’ confidence in vote by mail makes them less susceptible to calls to vote only one particular way that could contribute to delays in reporting results. 

The contrasting election experiences of Utah, Nevada and Arizona – despite every state relying on vote by mail in their elections – illustrate the reliability of vote by mail in Utah. Utah’s efficient vote counting also secures Utah elections against conspiracies made believable by unreasonable delays in announcing final results. As Thanksgiving approaches, we can be thankful that our right to vote is protected by a reliable and secure election system.

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