The security of vote by mail in Utah

Written by Derek Monson

October 28, 2021

Next Tuesday is Election Day in Utah. As it nears, some voters might be concerned by recent news that a state policymaker has questioned election security in Utah, including a call to repeal vote by mail for all Utah voters except “for those traveling or immobilized” on Election Day.

But the evidence does not support repealing the program. Rather, it reveals many layers of security overseen by many different people across the essential components of Utah’s vote-by-mail program: (1) voter registration, (2) ballot processing, (3) voting equipment, and (4) voter confidence.

Voter registration

  • When a voter registers to vote, they provide either their state driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Election officials verify these numbers with the driver’s license database to ensure the voter’s identity.
  • A weekly statewide search of the driver’s license database is done to eliminate any occurrence of duplicate voter registrations. The same search and elimination of duplicate registrations is done before any mail-in ballots are sent to voters.
  • To ensure that moving from one home to another does not create broad election security concerns in Utah, voter registration records are automatically updated when a Utahn renews their driver’s license or updates their address with the Utah driver’s license division. Additionally, election officials use the National Change of Address database of permanent change of address forms filed with the U.S. Postal Service to identify voters who have moved.
  • When a mail-in ballot sent to a voter is returned because it is undeliverable (e.g., the voter has moved and there is no forwarding address), that voter’s status is changed from “active” to “inactive.” Mail-in ballots are only mailed to active voters.
  • To prevent ballots from being mailed to deceased Utahns, counties receive weekly updates on death records from the Utah Office of Vital Records and Statistics. Newly deceased Utahns are removed from the voter rolls.
  • Election officials use a mapping service to validate every voter’s address and ensure they are assigned to their proper voting precinct.

Ballot processing

  • All ballots are processed by at least two trained election officials in a space viewable by members of the public, including poll watchers.
  • Mail-in ballots include an affidavit that must be signed by the voter for the vote to be counted. The signature is checked against and matched with voter signatures on file up to three times during processing.
  • Before certifying any election, county clerks must audit a random sample of 1% of ballots to verify the accuracy of vote tabulations.
  • Every mail-in ballot has a unique control number contained in a barcode that is associated with the voter that the ballot is addressed to. The barcode is checked when the ballot is received by election officials to ensure the voter has not been recorded as having voted elsewhere.
  • Mail-in ballots remain sealed in their envelope until after the voter’s signature on the ballot affidavit has been reviewed by elections officials.
  • Mail-in ballots are tracked throughout processing using the unique control number/barcode assigned to each ballot. Voters have online tools to verify their ballot’s status while it is in the mail and after it has been received by election officials.
  • When a ballot is received at an election office, it is logged in and assigned to a batch with other ballots. Ballots in each batch are accounted for and reconciled various times during processing to ensure ballots are not added to or removed from each batch.

Voting equipment

  • Every piece of voting equipment is quality-tested before it is used to tabulate election results, including a test performed at a meeting that any member of the public can attend. Accuracy is tested by using voting equipment to tabulate results on a set of test ballots, where it is known beforehand the results that the equipment should produce.
  • Voting results are not compiled or viewed until after polls close on election night.
  • To protect against hacking, equipment for counting votes is never connected to the internet.
  • Physical access to voting equipment is only given to trained and authorized election officials. Multiple layers of security – including seals that will show signs of tampering and observation of voting equipment – are in place to recognize and prevent unauthorized access to voting equipment.
  • In a public meeting prior to certifying an election, election officials conduct an audit of a sample of ballots. The ballots are manually reviewed and tabulated, and those results are compared with the results tabulated by the voting equipment. These audits become records that the public can access at any time.

Voter confidence

  • Any voter concerned about mailing their ballot can either deposit their mail-in ballot in a secure drop box or deliver it physically to a voting center prior to or on Election Day.
  • Any voter wanting accurate and relatable voting information can look to the verified social media accounts of election officials.
  • Voters can ensure that their voter registration information is accurate and up to date at any time by checking their registration status at vote.utah.gov.
  • While a mail-in ballot is in the mail, any voter can sign up for daily status updates on their ballot – including a picture of the physical status of the ballot sent to them every day. Voters can also track the status of their mail-in ballot throughout the process using vote.utah.gov. In 2022, voters will be able to sign up for text, email or phone notifications of when their ballot is mailed to them, received by election officials, and counted.

Conclusion

Some security steps cross over between the four areas of election security. However, there are at least 20 distinct and unique policies, procedures and processes identified here to protect the integrity and security of Utah’s vote-by-mail system. Further, oversight and administration authority for these election security measures are spread out over a number of different election officials at both the state and local levels.

Attempts at dishonest voting and human error are always possible. But it seems self-evident that it would be prohibitively difficult to penetrate every layer of election security currently in Utah without being discovered and stopped by one of the many election officials charged with protecting the integrity of Utah’s elections. This is even more evident given the fact such efforts would have to occur on a scale of hundreds or thousands of votes to impact the outcome of most elections in Utah. It is arguable that influencing even the few dozen votes needed to change an outcome in the closest elections in Utah would be extremely difficult to do without being detected.

The varied layers of election security and the number of people involved in overseeing the integrity of voter registration, ballot processing and voting equipment – including voters themselves with tools such as ballot tracking – suggest that Utah’s vote-by-mail system is secure. Consideration of election security and integrity is always worthwhile. However, the evidence suggests that eliminating vote by mail for most voters is neither prudent nor necessary to secure elections in Utah.

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