December 17, 2021
A group recently submitted an application for a ballot initiative that would repeal access to vote by mail (VBM) for most Utahns, based on fears over the security of vote by mail. This would be a profound change in election policy in Utah, where we have been using and expanding access to VBM for a decade.
The ballot initiative naturally raises the question: How successful has Utah’s VBM program been?
There is no consensus “best way” to measure success of a VBM program. However, commonsense outcomes from a successful election policy should include reasonable ballot access for voters and protection of election security and integrity. Potential measures of this success include levels of verified voter fraud, adoption by voters, policymaker and media interest, and independent assessments. By nearly all of these measures, Utah’s VBM program has been successful.
Verified voter fraud
The possibility of fraud exists in all election systems. Therefore the stronger measure of success or failure is not theoretical possibilities of fraud, but verified existence of fraud.
Conceptually, VBM creates election integrity concerns because ballots are completed outside the protection of a staffed polling place or voting center. Utah’s VBM program has many levels of security and transparency designed to address this issue.
There has been no evidence of significant levels of voter fraud in Utah’s primarily VBM system since counties widely adopted it in 2016. While voter fraud of any type in Utah is “extremely rare,” the greatest source of voter fraud reported by election officials is when a family member signs the affidavit of a mail-in ballot for another family member. Utah’s practice of matching every ballot’s signature against a ballot signature database that includes every voter closes this avenue of potential fraud.
Even organizations concerned with election security that tout voter fraud databases have not found significant instances of fraud in Utah. The Heritage Foundation’s Election Fraud Database, for instance, lists one 2008 instance of attempted voter fraud in Utah. The attempted fraud was in voter registration rather than voting by mail.
Based on verified voter fraud, Utah’s VBM program seems to successfully protect the integrity and security of Utah elections.
Adoption by voters
If part of the goal of a successful election policy is to ensure voters have reasonable ballot access, one potential measure of success of VBM is to see how widely voters adopt mail-in voting. It seems unlikely that Utahns would broadly adopt a method of voting that makes it difficult for them to vote. The history of VBM in Utah is one of increasing adoption by voters:
In 2010, a little under 15 percent of voters cast their ballot by mail, either through the postal service or using a secure drop box. In 2012, the Utah Legislature enacted a law allowing counties to administer elections entirely by mail and one county (Duchesne) chose to do so. That year, about 20 percent of voters cast ballots by mail.
In 2014, 10 of 29 counties in Utah conducted elections primarily by mail, and in 2016, that number rose to 21 counties. … In 2018, 27 of 29 counties ran elections primarily by mail (including in-person voting options), with the two non-VBM counties accounting for less than 1 percent of Utah voters. About 90 percent of Utah voters in 2018 cast ballots by mail.
In 2020, Utah enacted a law that: (1) changed the default voting method for registered voters to VBM by automatically mailing a ballot to them for every election in which they are eligible to vote unless they request otherwise, and (2) protected the right to vote in person, either early or on Election Day. Every county in Utah must offer voters a designated voting center for in-person voting on Election Day or during the early voting window, which must be at least four days. In the March 2020 presidential primary in Utah 90 percent of voters voted by mail. In the June 2020 primary for non-presidential offices 99 percent of Utah voters voted by mail, while about 93 percent of 2020 general-election voters in Utah voted by mail.
Despite the continued availability of in-person Election Day voting, the overwhelming majority of Utahns use VBM. Undoubtedly, this is partly because county election officials chose VBM as the default voting method. However, other voting methods remain available and yet Utah voters continue to choose VBM by overwhelming majorities. Voter surveys may explain why.
A Pew Research Center survey report analyzed the U.S. voter experience in 2020, including differences in voters’ chosen method of voting (VBM, in person on Election Day, or in person before Election Day). Whatever their chosen method of voting, 66 percent of voters said that a “major reason” for their choice was that they “thought it would be the most convenient way to vote.” The next closest major reason for a voter’s chosen voting method was that it was their “usual method of voting” (54 percent). All other reasons fell below 30 percent on this measure.
In other words, the convenience of VBM may explain why voters have adopted it as their preferred voting method despite having other options. Whatever the reason, the widespread adoption of VBM by Utah voters points to its success in making the ballot reasonably accessible across the state, especially when increasing adoption of VBM was accompanied by increasing voter turnout.
Policymaker and media interest
Publicized interest from policymakers and media organizations, specifically from outside Utah, can be a measure of success for Utah’s VBM program. They do not directly measure ballot access or election integrity, but they can measure them indirectly if out-of-state attention focuses on these features of Utah’s VBM program.
The Pennsylvania State Legislature held legislative hearings early in 2021 to review its VBM policy. Part of its considerations included interviews with Utah’s then-director of elections, Justin Lee, and Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. Lee noted how “instances [of attempted voter fraud] were almost always a spouse, partner or parent trying to sign a ballot on behalf of a loved one, and they have been caught during a ballot signature review process.” Swensen shared how Utah assigns a voter-specific ID number to each ballot sent out in order to prevent multiple votes from the same voter.
Both NPR and The Atlantic published news articles examining Utah’s successes with VBM. NPR’s coverage focused, in part, on “why Utah has been so successful with mail-in ballots with very little fraud.” The Atlantic drilled down on “Utah’s vote-by-mail experience [and] best practices for other states to follow.”
The Houston Chronicle published an op-ed in July 2021 from former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson about VBM. Grayson, a Republican, called on the Texas State Legislature to follow the example of “Utah’s successful reforms” and touted Utah’s primarily VBM system as “one of the most efficient voting systems in the country.” The article specifically noted Utah’s record turnout under primarily VBM elections and how VBM has helped voters become more informed.
Policymakers and news media can (and often do) have agendas driving what they choose to consider in legislative hearings or publish on news and opinion pages. Nevertheless, out-of-state publicity – when thoughtfully considered – seems to point to the success of Utah’s VBM program.
Two organizations have published assessments of state election systems in recent years: Brookings Foundation and Heritage Foundation.
In July 2020, Brookings published a scorecard rating state administration of VBM. Utah was one of eight states to get an “A” grade for their performance. In 2021, Heritage published a scorecard rating states on the integrity of their election systems, based mostly on state election laws. Utah ranked 41 with a score of 47 out of 100.
While Utah performs well on one scorecard and poorly on another, this might be a factor of the ideological or policy preferences of the organizations producing the scorecards. In the Brookings scorecard, for instance, Utah’s standing is improved simply for having an election policy of primarily VBM elections. On the other hand, in the Heritage scorecard Utah’s standing is worsened based on the same policy. Neither of these specific components of the scorecards examine Utah-specific evidence regarding election integrity (fraud) or access to the ballot (adoption and turnout).
To the extent that these assessments are driven by policy preferences, they have limited value in measuring the success of Utah’s VBM program. However, they still offer some insights that can be valuable for Utah’s election policies (e.g., ideas for additional policy reforms).
No one claims that Utah’s VBM program is perfect. Utah election officials continue to propose additional reforms to improve the security and transparency of the system for voters. Whether the ballot initiative to restrict VBM in Utah is successful or not, it can serve the valuable role of helping Utah voters better understand the system that over 9 in 10 of them use to vote.
An important part of that understanding ought to be the knowledge that whether measured by verified voter fraud, adoption by voters, or policymaker/news media interest, Utah’s VBM program successfully creates reasonable access to the ballot while adequately protecting election security and integrity.
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