By Wendy Underhill
Representative Steve Eliason (R-Utah) called me the other day. I always like to hear from legislators, but this call was particularly timely.
He wanted to call to my attention a story in Washington Monthly, "How to Save Elections From a Pandemic." This story, he reports, was well underway when the pandemic struck—but is even more pertinent now, given that increasing voting by mail is one public policy response to concerns about safety and elections in the time of COVID-19.
In short: Utah uses a vote-by-mail (or, to use the newest phrase, vote-at-home) system, in which all registered voters are sent a ballot. It’s the same as absentee voting in any state, but in Utah (and Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington), all voters get a ballot, no request required. Once voters have made their selections and provided an affidavit signature on the outside of the return envelope, they mail it back or drop it off.
Eliason first introduced vote-by-mail in 2012. He didn’t think of this in terms of a pandemic; he was thinking about turnout at the time. Politics that year were such that both parties thought vote-by-mail might be an advantage for them, so the bill passed with bipartisan support.
“The secret was, we weren’t forcing anybody to do anything,” Eliason said. The bill gave counties in Utah a choice: They could run traditional, polling place-based elections, or they could experiment with going all mail. Slowly, more counties tried it and liked it.
Then came a natural experiment in 2018. Suncrest is a city that straddles two counties, Salt Lake County and Utah County. Salt Lake County ran their midterms by mail that year and Utah County did not. Turnout for Suncrest voters who lived on the Salt Lake County side of the line was 18 points higher than for Suncrest voters on the Utah County side. After that, all Utah counties have opted for all-mail, for all elections, large and small.
You can read all about it in the Washington Monthly, or better yet, ask Eliason directly. And for the very latest from academia on partisanship (or the lack thereof) and all-mail voting, see The Neutral Partisan Effects of Vote-by-Mail: Evidence from County-Level Roll-Outs.
Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.