Rural Utah Project

Deseret News: Should the deadline for by-mail ballots be changed in Utah? Here’s what happened to one proposal

Nicole Weaver

Read full article here:

By Lisa Riley Roche Jan 22, 2024, 7:56pm MST

A bill requiring mailed-in ballots to be in the hands of election officials before the polls close on Election Day in order to be counted was put on hold Monday by the Utah Legislature’s House Government Operations Committee.

Utah law currently says mail-in ballots are valid as long as they’re “clearly postmarked before Election Day” and show up before noon on the day of the official canvass of the vote that usually comes two weeks later.

The sponsor of the bill, HB214, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said that makes Utah an “outlier.” He called for a “move from a complicated and difficult to explain system” to one that shifts the responsibility to voters “for making sure their vote gets in on time.”

Thurston told the committee his bill would give Utahns more confidence in elections.

“I believe that we do have a lot of questions out there about the integrity of our elections. Not that I think that they are problematic, but I think there is a perception that they are problematic. There’s a lot of people that think there’s a possibility of fraud,” he said.

But for more than hour committee members heard largely critical testimony about the change, including its impact on rural as well as disabled Utahns who count on being able to mail in their ballots the Monday before an election.

“Utahns all across the state see this as a proposal to disenfranchise voters, especially from rural communities,” said TJ Ellerbeck, executive director of the nonprofit Rural Utah Project involved in civic engagement and a member of a coalition of like-minded organizations.

Ellerbeck said more than 4,000 Utahns have signed a coalition petition urging lawmakers not to make any election changes, with one Moab woman concerned the bill would “make voters responsible for something over which they have no control,” when mail arrives.

Everette Bacon, president of the National Federation of the Blind Utah, said “people with disabilities love mail-in voting” because it can be difficult to get to a polling location and find out about assistance.

Bacon said he fears people with disabilities won’t be aware of a change from a set deadline for mailing in ballots, since Thurston’s bill does not include funding to promote the new responsibility for voters.

Only one of Utah’s 29 county clerks backed the bill, Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson.

“The mail-in balloting, it actually should have been drop box return balloting to try to encourage the voter to use the drop box rather than the mail-in balloting process,” Davidson said, citing “chain of custody” issues with ballots that arrive in the mail.

Utah County has already decided not to pay for some $110,000 in return postage for primary and general election ballots, he said, money that could be spent on more drop boxes.

“It’s not necessarily trying to disenfranchise voters, but it’s making them know that’s an option and if they want that option, they have to pay for it,” Davidson said of the bill. “And they’ve got to comply with the rules and mail it in a lot earlier.”

Utah Eagle Forum’s Whit Cook said the change would help keep elections “simple and sweet.” Cook said if Utahns “take our voting system seriously, our process seriously, then perhaps … they should take that extra effort to make sure that they post it on time.”

Several opponents of the bill pointed to Utah’s vote-by-mail elections as a model for the nation. Efforts to return to in-person only voting have failed to advance in previous sessions of the Utah Legislature

“We shouldn’t take Utah backwards. We are a national leader and our voter participation is growing,” ACLU of Utah campaign director Billy Palmer said. “Utahns love and trust vote by mail.”

Before the committee voted to hold the bill rather than send it to the full House, it was amended to change the effective day from May 1 to Jan. 1, 2025, so the election already underway would not be affected.

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, initially proposed sending the bill back to the House Rules Committee because “we’ve heard there are some grave concerns” that are seen as “really shaking things up” for some Utahns.

Thurston, however, moved that his bill instead be held by the committee so members could incorporate ways to make by-mail voting “easier” for rural Utahns as well as those with disabilities.

“This could be the bill to do that. We could work on this all together,” the bill’s sponsor said, along with state and local election officials “to come up with a package that we can then move forward.”

Support The Rural Utah Project

With your donation, we will ensure that any attacks on Rural Utah voters and landscapes are met with resistance from activists from across Utah and the US.