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Federal law prohibits removing voters from registration rolls for failing to vote. But Utah lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed an end run around that one that Democrats protested is unconstitutional and could lead to lower voter turnout.
The Legislature's Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee endorsed a bill that would allow removing voters who miss four consecutive general elections and fail to respond to a notice mailed to them after the second missed election.
In other words, if they didn't vote in 2010 and 2012, they would be sent a notice asking them to vote or contact the county clerk or risk being removed from the rolls. If they still failed to vote in 2014 and 2016 and did not respond to the notice, their names would be removed.
Committee attorneys said that process would comply with federal law because removal technically would be based on failure to respond to the notice rather than failure to vote.
"I don't think this is constitutional," said Senate Democratic leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City and an attorney. He said the process essentially still seeks to remove people for not voting, which violates federal law and likely would lead to legal challenges.
But Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, House chairman of the committee, said it is a good compromise between never removing any names from registration lists, and trying to keep names and addresses current on the rolls to help prevent fraud.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said, "I am concerned that we are putting more and more barriers in place to voting." He and other Democrats noted that Utah now has the second-lowest voter turnout in the nation, and any further restrictions could lower it more.
Democrats on the committee plus Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake voted against the bill, but it was approved for consideration by the full Legislature in January.
The committee also endorsed several other changes to election laws, including putting voter information booklets online instead of mailing them, clarifying when parties may replace nominees on ballots and setting forms that must be used by parties and candidates seeking signatures to qualify for the ballot.
One bill would end the requirement that the state mail big voter information booklets before elections. Voters instead would receive postcards giving them a link to a state web site for information about candidates and propositions and a phone number to call if they still want a printed booklet mailed to them.
Mark Thomas, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, said posting voter information online not only would save money, it also would allow more complete arguments and explanations because word limits would no longer be needed to keep printed pamphlets relatively short.
Some committee members worried that senior citizens might not be tech savvy enough to go online or might not understand that they would need to call for a written booklet.
Thomas said the state would help by providing extra written copies to polling places, libraries, schools and perhaps senior citizen centers. He said the state would also conduct an outreach campaign with the news media to help ensure that seniors understand the change.
Another endorsed bill also clarifies when parties could replace nominees on ballots. Currently, parties may replace candidates "because of acquiring a physical or mental disability as certified by a physician." The bill adds that the disability must be severe enough that it "prevents the candidate from continuing the candidacy."
The committee also endorsed legislation to create specific forms that candidates and parties would have to use in gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot. Thomas said such groups currently create their own forms, and they have varied widely.