Do What I Want, How I Want It: Utah County Prohibits VBM in Upcoming Sales Tax Vote

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An upcoming vote in Utah County, UT will ask voters if they approve a quarter-cent tax increase to pay for local transportation needs. Such votes often generate strong feelings, but this is election is also raising eyebrows because the county is telling cities who are using vote-by-mail (VBM) that they may not do so for the tax vote. The Daily Herald has more:

After the Utah County Commission’s decision to not allow voting by mail in the November general election, city leaders confirmed they are meeting with county officials to discuss the issue and work out a solution.

“We’re hoping … to be able to come to a consensus on a plan moving forward,” said Cameron Boyle, assistant city administrator for Lehi, one of five Utah County cities directly impacted by the decision.

Orem, Alpine, Cedar Hills and Vineyard are the other four cities that were scheduled to use a vote-by-mail system in November.

According to Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson, all five of the cities’ mayors, city recorders and administrators have been contacted, and leaders from Orem, Vineyard and Lehi have agreed to meet Thursday morning to discuss the issue.

During the Utah County Commission meeting Tuesday, the commissioners voted 2 to 1 to place an issue on the county ballot in November that would allow Utah County residents to vote either for or against a quarter-cent tax increase that would fund local transportation needs.  

However, as part of the resolution, the commissioners adopted an additional recommendation by Thompson to not allow voting by mail in an attempt to allow “equal access” to the election ballot.

“Ultimately I recognize [the cities] have their own jurisdiction, and if they decide they want to use vote by mail that is their prerogative,” Thompson said.

He added, however, that if that’s the case, the cities would have to coordinate with the county’s election, which will not be a vote-by-mail election.

Cities using VBM aren’t happy about the requirement and suggest that concerns about unequal access to the ballot aren’t unique to communities using mail voting:

Steven Downs, Orem assistant city manager, said he understands the county’s concern that residents in cities with vote by mail arguably have easier access to ballots than others, but added, “Some people have easier access because they live next door to a polling location.”

“Looking at it holistically, it’s hard for me to understand why they would want to penalize the cities that are having a high turnout,” Downs continued. “A voice in Orem is just as important as a voice in Saratoga Springs.”

The rule is also somewhat curious given the growing interest in VBM across Utah County:

Provo has not yet opted to switch to a vote-by-mail system. But Deputy Mayor Corey Norman said after seeing the high voter turnout in cities with the system compared to Provo’s turnout — which sat in the single digits — the city will be giving the vote-by-mail system “a longer and harder look at it the next go-around.”

According to Norman, the commission’s decision is heading in “the opposite direction I would think we would want to go.

“This is all about increasing voter participation. I don’t want to penalize Orem because the other cities haven’t implemented the same kinds of tools.”

Though Norman agreed “there’s an argument to be made” that the cities that send out a ballot to every registered voter will be “overrepresented,” he said he doesn’t think they should be penalized for it.

“I don’t want to be in the business of penalizing participation. I want to encourage as many people to come and participate in the process as possible,” Norman said.

“When someone can sit at their kitchen table and look over the ballot … it increases participation, but also increases voter awareness and what they’re casting a ballot for.”

I’m no expert on local Utah politics, but common sense suggests that there is concern on the part of non-VBM cities that VBM cities will end up with a larger voice in the decision over the tax vote. Assuming that’s true (with all the caveats about making assumptions), prohibiting VBM and requiring cities to re-establish polling places while also conducting a mail ballot for city contests risks working a similar inequality – and expense – on those cities and their voters.

The larger issue worth watching, however, is whether local decisions in Utah about use of VBM are going to be the same kind of political football that early voting hours have become in places like Ohio and North Carolina. Those fights run the risk of making it even more difficult for election officials (and voters) to do their jobs.

The affected cities will learn more this week about what’s next. I’ll keep an eye on the story and provide updates as warranted.

Stay tuned!

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