This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
After long lines at polling places and complaints from voters, state Rep. Craig Hall says he will sponsor legislation to get rid of the universal vote-by-mail system in most of Utah's counties.
The vote-by-mail program was in place in 21 of the state's 29 counties this year the other eight did traditional voting at polling places but tens of thousands of voters didn't take advantage of the mail-in voting and instead flooded the few polling places that were open on Election Day.
The result: People waited in two- to three-hour lines to cast their ballots, delaying results and leading to widespread frustration.
Now, Hall, a Republican from West Valley City, which saw some of the longest Election Day lines, said he will sponsor legislation to go back to the way elections used to be when voters could request a mail-in or absentee ballot, but the default was for voters to participate in early voting or go to their polling places on Election Day.
"Some people love vote-by-mail, and that's great, but some people have absolutely no interest in voting by mail, and we ought to cater to the voters' preference," Hall said. "No matter how hard the [county] clerks' offices might try, people just refuse to vote by mail, and that's OK. There's nothing wrong with wanting to vote in person on Election Day, and accordingly, we had the record lines on Election Day. And when people refuse to vote by mail, there's still a ballot that is wandering around that's not used."
That could heighten the risk of voter fraud, Hall said, although he was quick to add he has no proof of fraud, and this is not his primary motivation for wanting to go back to the old method of casting ballots.
Longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said it makes sense to keep the mail-in voting as the default, but would be fine with opening up more Election Day polling places to accommodate people who prefer that option.
In fact, Swensen tried to add more polling places one at the Maverik Center in West Valley City and one in Sandy when it became clear that the mail-in ballots were not being returned in the numbers her office anticipated. But she wasn't able to add those voting sites because state law requires voters to be notified of every polling place well ahead of the election.
Swensen said the 2016 election appears to have been unusual in that voters simply hung onto their ballots until the last minute, perhaps waiting to make up their minds. In 2012, 86,000 people voted in person at the early-voting locations; this year fewer than 15,000 voted early, she said.
"It was an unusual situation where people didn't make their minds up and didn't utilize early voting the way they had in the past," Swensen said. "I don't think it's good to take [mail-in voting] away completely, because the turnout overall for the counties that ran vote-by-mail was actually better than the counties that didn't."
Indeed, statistics from the state elections office show that voter turnout in the 21 counties that used mail-in voting as their default had higher voter turnout than the eight that did not.
And exit polling by the Utah Colleges Exit Poll conducted in the runup to the election and on election night reflected that a huge number of voters Republican voters, in particular didn't decide between GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and independent candidate Evan McMullin until the last week and even the last days before the election.
The poll showed that 30 percent of Trump supporters and half the McMullin backers made up their minds in the final week of the election.
That sparked the Election Day stampede that overwhelmed clerks in most counties.
Hall said he understands that voters may have decided late, "but that doesn't account for the record lines we had on Election Day."
Hall noted he personally likes voting by mail because he can take time to research candidates and issues before voting and he can do it on his own schedule, but many people he talked to while he was campaigning said they simply don't like the mail-in balloting.
"Both West Vally City Hall and Hunter Library had people waiting in line for three or four hours at the end of the night, which is completely unacceptable," he said. "A lot of those folks had ballots mailed to their homes and they chose to wait in a three- or four-hour line instead of voting by mail. If they want to vote in person, we shouldn't force a vote-by-mail ballot down their throat."
Swensen said it would make more sense to continue doing vote-by-mail and also give clerks the flexibility to open additional polling places if it appears before the election that they'll be needed.
Swensen said the mail-in elections cost less because fewer polling places have to be staffed and fewer voting machines are needed. But whichever way the state decides to go, she said, policymakers should decide before the state invests millions of dollars in new voting machines. The state spent $24 million on voting machines in 2006 and now is in the process of replacing those units.