May 19, 2022
News coverage of primary voting in various states has noted a trend of voters returning to pre-pandemic levels of in-person voting as compared with vote by mail (VBM). The reasons cited include the easing of COVID-related concerns among voters about in-person voting and the creation of new VBM policies after many states experimented with largely unfettered access to VBM during the pandemic.
From one perspective, voters returning to in-person voting after being able to vote by mail is surprising. VBM in the United States began at least 160 years ago, predating by several decades election policy changes like women’s suffrage, and is chosen by the voters who use it for its convenience. So if it isn’t new and it is convenient, why would people choose to abandon it?
From another perspective, voters returning to in-person voting makes perfect sense. Like any other human activity, the appeal of voting for many may be the experience itself – the experience of participating in a civic duty. Despite the inconvenience of going to a polling place or voting center, the voting experience can be enhanced by that additional step – like the experience of watching a movie with friends is enhanced by going together to a theater rather than joining a virtual watch party.
VBM is also not something that many voters have much experience with – despite VBM’s long history in the U.S., many American voters voted by mail for the first time during the pandemic. Since VBM is not a means of voting that is deeply ingrained for many voters, they may not see giving it up as a significant problem.
Finally, despite the fact that scholarly research finds little evidence that VBM benefits one political party over the other, the perception among many Americans is that VBM did just that in the 2020 presidential election. Acting on this conclusion despite the empirical facts, some voting groups returning to in-person voting may simply be acting according to what they think is in the best interest of their political party.
In Utah, however, it seems less likely that such a trend toward in-person voting will materialize, for several reasons.
First, Utah has a much longer history with VBM than many other states. Most states experienced significant rates of VBM use for the first time during the pandemic – but in Utah, thanks to the incremental and organic growth of VBM over the span of a decade, most voters were well experienced with VBM by the time the pandemic hit.
Second, while any Utah voter has the legal right to vote in person (even if their ballot is sent to them in the mail) the default election policy in Utah is VBM. In other words, some of the hurdles to signing up for VBM in other states simply do not exist in Utah’s primarily VBM system.
Third, Utah election administrators have enacted more than 20 distinct layers of election security as they have expanded access to VBM. These election integrity measures contribute to high levels of Utah voter confidence and trust in our elections, whether they be state, local or Congressional elections.
In Sutherland’s research on VBM, we found that:
Sound evidence from history, scholarly research and on-the-ground experience paint a picture of broad voting by mail – when implemented well – as a secure and successful means of casting a ballot. No one claims VBM is perfect, but the evidence suggests that it is a secure means of voting that offers voters sufficient access to voting.
The talking points of some politicians and partisan interests may disagree, but the facts about VBM stand on their own. As John Adams declared, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
So as voters in some states reveal a preference for in-person voting (or are pushed in that direction by their states’ VBM policies), it seems unlikely to dramatically alter the preference for VBM in Utah. It is certainly possible that some voters will opt to cast their ballot in person at a voting center or polling location – only time will tell. But the security and familiarity with VBM in Utah point to the likelihood that most Utah voters will keep voting by mail.
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