Change is Never Easy: Utah’s Grand County Wrestles with Transition to Vote By Mail

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[Image courtesy of tessasweats]

I’ve discussed the growing nationwide trend toward vote-by-mail and other non-precinct place voting methods, but one Utah county is experiencing first hand what that change looks like on the ground. The Moab Sun News has more:

The long-standing American tradition of going to the polls to cast your vote is going away in Grand County, and voters will have to send their ballots in by mail for the upcoming primary election.

“I don’t like it,” said long-time resident and business owner Andy Nettell. “There is something about going to the polls, seeing your neighbors, and dropping your ballot in the box that makes you feel like you are participating in democracy.”

Other residents were surprised when the notice showed up in their mailbox.

“This was the first I had heard of it. I was taken completely by surprise,” local teacher and resident, Joanne Savoie said. “Was there any discussion on this? Who made this decision?”

In fact, the decision was made by the local election official, who – like many others across the nation – has been given such discretion by the state legislature:

The decision was made by Grand County clerk/auditor Diana Carroll, under Utah State Code 20A-3-302, which allows the election officer (clerk/auditor) to conduct the election by mail. Carroll made the decision, she said, “to reduce election costs, to clean up voter rolls, and to increase voter turnout.”

“By-mail voting seems to be a relatively popular trend,” she said. “Each election more and more voters are requesting to be added to our list of permanent absentee voters.”

Voting by mail is not new. Oregon has been using vote-by-mail for all elections since 2000, and the state of Washington has also switched over. Other states, including neighboring Colorado, have varying degrees of vote-by-mail, but most are not exclusive.

A handful of other Utah counties, including San Juan, Weber, and Davis, are all making the transition to vote-by-mail this year, and the State of Utah is watching closely to see the results.

Davis County has taken the lead in Utah, and they are taking part in a feasibility study for the state in response to the large number of requests for mail-in voting.

“We are excited to see the results during the primary,” said Brian McKenzie, election officer for Davis County said.

One issue is the fact that Grand County will be switching completely to vote by mail without preserving any kind of in-person voting:

[U]nlike Davis County, Grand County will not offer any other method for voting. Davis County will still have several polling stations open on election day.

“We understand the need to have a fail-safe system in place,” McKenzie said. “Both to serve voters with special needs, and for those voters who aren’t quite ready to make the transition yet.”

McKenzie added that Davis County has already sent out four notices to residents about the upcoming change. Davis County also has information on its county website homepage, and a separate page that details the entire process.

Some residents worry about the effect of vote-by-mail on younger, more mobile voters, while others are deeply skeptical of the Postal Service’s capability to handle ballots:

Local resident Logan Hanson fears that the new system could disenfranchise younger voters, many of whom have lived here for a few years but change addresses often because they are renters. He believes that this system creates an extra step and allows a greater opportunity for something to slip through the cracks.

“Younger people aren’t as diligent about checking their mail,” he said. “We have everything on automatic bill pay, we use the Internet – most of what comes in the mail is junk.”

Others expressed concern about conducting an election through the U.S. Postal Service.
“I get my neighbor’s mail all the time,” Savoie said. “One time I was supposed to receive a refund check in the mail. I got it 6 years later.”

Carroll says she is working closely with the postal service to ensure effective receipt and delivery of election material.

“In the unfortunate event that a ballot is lost in the mail, the process will be to spoil the initial ballot and reissue the voter a new ballot. If the old ballot shows up, the voter is instructed to return the un-voted ballot to the Clerk’s office,” Carroll said.

Long-time Moab resident and registered voter Joan Gough didn’t receive her initial notice
in the mail. She knew to look out for it because the League of Women Voters have made its members aware of the new voting method. When it didn’t come, she became alarmed, and went down to the courthouse to inquire.

“They pulled me up on the computer and all my information was there, including my current street address,” Gough said. “They couldn’t find anything wrong. But then they looked a little further, a screen behind a screen or something, and they found a Post Office box that I had 20 years ago. That was where the card had been sent. I am really concerned that if someone didn’t know about this, and they didn’t receive their card in the mail, they wouldn’t get to vote.”

Others expressed concern about security issues involved with using the mail and many aren’t comfortable just putting their ballot in their mailbox.

“So I’m just supposed to put my ballot in the mailbox with the flag up?” questioned resident Ralph Ferrara. “Anyone could just take that. How do I know that my vote even got there?”

Grand County’s election official, to her credit, recognizes these concerns and is trying to ensure that voters feel like they can check that their ballots have been received:

Carroll says that there isn’t currently a system in place where one can check to see if their vote has been received, but that with approximately 400 absentee voters in the last election, the problem never came up. She says they scan a bar code on the return envelope to create a return log and to record vote history.

“The voter could check with us to verify this process,” she said.

Utah state law requires the election officer to provide voting history and information status. This information, according to Utah State Code 20A-3-304, must be recorded and made available to the public no later than one day after its receipt in the election office.

[Davis County’s] Greenberg suggests that as the bar codes are scanned, they could be posted to a website so a voter could simply log on to see if their vote has been received.

This story is worth sharing because it shows how any change (even one that is gaining momentum nationwide) still has to be implemented and explained – and most importantly, accepted by voters in the community. One likely reason why many election officials are so wedded to “the way we’ve always done it” is because voters are, too.

I’ll keep an eye on Grand County to see how it goes – stay tuned!

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