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Q&A: Mail-in voting and Utah’s election process

Written by The Likely Voter

June 13, 2024

Registered voters across the state began receiving their ballots in the mail last week for the party primaries on Tuesday, June 25. Sutherland’s chief growth officer, Derek Monson, participated in a Q&A with The Likely Voter to discuss Utah’s election processes and how the state is working to ensure that its elections remain trusted – and trustworthy.

The Likely Voter: When did Utah become a primarily mail-in voting state? What caused Utah to pioneer the initiative?

Derek Monson: Utah officially became a vote-by-mail state in 2020, but it had been increasingly using vote by mail as the default option over the previous decade. In 2010, 15% of Utah voters cast a ballot by mail. But in 2012 the Utah Legislature enacted a law allowing counties to move to primarily vote by mail if they so chose, and 20% of ballots that year were cast by mail. In 2014, 10 of 29 counties in Utah chose to opt into primarily vote-by-mail elections, and that rose to 21 of 29 counties in 2016. By 2019, 27 of 29 counties were primarily vote by mail, and about 90% of votes that year were cast using the vote-by-mail system.

The Likely Voter: What fail-safes are in place to protect election integrity and ensure that every ballot is securely delivered/received and counted?

Derek Monson: Utah has more than 20 election security measures in place at the state and local levels to protect election integrity and ensure that every ballot is counted accurately. Due to this and voters’ positive experience with voting in Utah, a recent Sutherland Institute-Y2 Analytics poll found that roughly three-fourths of Utah likely voters were confident that Utah’s vote-by-mail-based election system counted their votes accurately, fairly and securely.

The primary fail-safe among these security measures is the transparency in the voting system. For instance, Utah voters can go to ballottrax.utah.gov and track their ballot throughout the process. They can also sign up to receive text, email or voicemail notifications for each of the following steps: (1) when their ballot has been mailed to them, (2) when their ballot has been received by their county election office, and (3) when their ballot has been processed and is ready to be counted by their county election office.

An additional transparency measure includes the requirement that every ballot be processed by two election officials in a space viewable by the public. Finally, after votes are counted in every election and before the election is certified, a sample of ballots from every vote tabulation machine is hand-counted in an open public meeting and results compared to what the vote tabulation machine produced. This is done to verify the accuracy of machine-tabulated election results.

Other critical security measures include the following: (1) Every ballot has a unique barcode associated with the voter it was addressed to, which allows for the ballot tracking system that voters can sign up for. This protects the “one person, one vote” principle and ensures that every voter’s ballot is counted. (2) Every ballot received by an election office is assigned to a batch, and each batch is checked and reconciled multiple times during the ballot-counting process to ensure that no ballots are added to or removed from any batch. (3) No vote tabulation machine is capable of connecting to the internet, and each is stored in a secure area accessible only to election officials, to protect against hacking.

The Likely Voter: How is Sutherland Institute working with policymakers and election experts to ensure trust in Utah’s elections?

Derek Monson: Sutherland is committed to examining the existing security measures in place to protect election integrity in Utah in the current election year as well as future years, and offering policy recommendations to improve them where they can be feasibly improved. We are also researching and raising public awareness around existing election security measures so voters can feel confident that their ballot will be securely handled, processed and counted.

For instance, in partnership with SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the Gary R. Herbert Policy Institute at Utah Valley University, Sutherland recently held the Election Trust Forum, which discussed important questions and evidence regarding election security and public trust in voting. Sutherland staff also recently participated in a research conference in Washington, D.C., exploring current research around primary elections.

Throughout 2024 and beyond, Sutherland will produce and promote written and video content to help ensure that our elections remain both trusted and trustworthy.

The Likely Voter: A recent Sutherland Issue Brief showed that Utah likely voters view “election processes” as a “mid-tier” issue. What does this say about Utah’s election transparency and preemptive efforts to maintain election integrity?

Derek Monson: Utah voters clearly prioritize secure elections, but they place them below more bread-and-butter issues. That is likely because their confidence in Utah’s elections is so high that they don’t see any reason to place election processes as a top priority.

This points to a high level of public trust in the transparency and integrity of Utah’s voting process. Of course, election policy can always improve, and it is critical that we do not become complacent about the security and transparency in our election system. However, Utah voters can feel highly confident in their ability to understand how their ballots are kept secure and counted accurately, even while we seek ways to improve election transparency and integrity.

The Likely Voter: How can other states learn from Utah’s success with mail-in voting and election security?

Derek Monson: Based on Utah’s experience, a successful vote-by-mail system should begin as a voluntary program for voters that gives them time and experience to become familiar with it. As a default method for voting, it should then roll out incrementally, like it did in Utah over the span of a decade, so that election officials can learn how to best administer a vote-by-mail system.

Almost all states maintain a system of security measures comparable to Utah. This is one reason why widespread voter fraud remains a practical impossibility in the U.S. However, many states also have unique election security elements that each state can learn from. For instance, Utah’s ballot tracking and voter notification system is a unique feature that other states could replicate. Certainly, other states have security measures that Utah could learn from and implement as well.

For a more in-depth perspective on this article, review our Elections Issues Page here.

Takeaways: the most important things voters need to know. For civically engaged citizens.  

  • Utah officially became a vote-by-mail state in 2020 but had been slowly integrating the process since 2010.
  • Utah has more than 20 election security measures in place to protect election integrity.
  • Recent survey data shows that “election processes” ranks as a “mid-tier” issue in Utah, suggesting that many Utahns trust the system that is in place.

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