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The Nov. 4 election is still a month away, but hundreds of thousands of Utah voters already are receiving their ballots by mail or will within days. The trend is changing how candidates campaign, and how parties get out the vote.
About a third of Utah's counties nine of 29 this year are conducting elections almost entirely by mail, and either have sent their ballots already or will by law by Tuesday.
The rest of the counties also allow individual voters the choice to request ballots by mail, or to cast them in person. Salt Lake County is among that group and sent out 126,500 ballots by mail this week as requested by 29 percent of the area's registered voters, said County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said it makes a difference in campaigning.
"It means our candidates have to be mailing out materials earlier and reaching voters earlier because people now have the opportunity to take a month to vote."
Instead of waging one big get-out-the-vote drive, he said parties and candidates now must do it in three waves: one for those who vote by mail, another for those who vote early in-person, and a final push on Election Day.
Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans says voting by mail brings advantages.
Positives • "One of the upsides is candidates are able to see who has already voted" by looking at constantly updated lists compiled by county clerk offices. "So [candidates] can be more targeted in their communication so they do not have to send mailers to people who have already voted."
Evans said by-mail voting also allows residents at home, with a ballot in hand, to study candidates and issues "for a longer period of time instead of just walking into a ballot booth and making a decision."
Both parties have encouraged voting by mail because it tends to increase turnout. For example, Swensen said 103,000 of the 130,000 Salt Lake County voters who requested mail ballots two years ago returned them. All-voting-by-mail counties estimate it sometimes has doubled voter turnout in early experiments.
That is welcome because Utah's voter turnout has become one of the nation's worst in recent years. In the last mid-term election in 2010, only 36.2 percent of voting-age Utahns cast ballots fifth lowest in the nation, according to studies by George Mason University.
This year, nine counties are voting almost entirely by mail Beaver, Cache, Davis, Duchesne, Garfield, Grand, San Juan, Sanpete and Sevier, said Justin Lee, deputy director of elections for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Most also offer some in-person voting centers on Election Day.
Lee said that only Duchesne previously conducted a general election entirely by mail, but most of the others held a by-mail primary this year or conducted some city elections by mail.
Cache County Clerk Jill Zollinger said her county conducted all-by-mail voting in three precincts in this year's primary election, and turnout in them was twice as high as in other areas. Her county is mailing out 49,000 ballots on Monday.
Urban pioneer • Brian McKenzie, election manager for Davis County, said its by-mail primary this year also had turnout that was much higher than in neighboring counties, with participation up to 50 percent of registered voters in some areas. "For a primary election, that just doesn't happen."
He said it also allowed Davis County, the only urban county in Utah so far to adopt the practice, to release results much faster. That is because it processed votes as they were received in the mail over a month's time although they were not tabulated until all polling places closed at 8 on election night.
"At 8:02 on election night, we released those initial results," which did not include in-person votes cast that day and some ballots arriving in subsequent days' mail. "It was much earlier than we were able to do" previously.
McKenzie said Davis County is mailing ballots to its 135,000 registered voters on Monday, along with contact information for candidates on the ballot "to empower the voters, if they want to, to study the issues."
More voting by mail is not the only big change in elections this year. Four counties will also conduct an experiment in allowing Election-Day voter registration: Davis, Weber, Salt Lake and Kane. Even though Davis is conducting by-mail voting, it allows same-day registration at a few voting centers open on Election Day, McKenzie said.
Swensen said Salt Lake County allowed Election-Day registration in this year's primary for the first time. She said most who sought it were first-time young voters ages 18-25. But she was surprised that many people older than 60 also took advantage of same-day registration she figures because they had moved and never reregistered.
Deadlines • Elsewhere, Lee said the statewide deadline for registering by mail is Monday. But in-person registration at county clerk offices continues through Oct. 27, and online registration continues through Oct. 28.
Voting early in-person is also an option in those counties not voting all-by-mail. That begins in county clerk offices (technically casting absentee ballots in person) on Monday. Early voting at a variety of other locations around counties is available Oct. 21-31.
A list of locations statewide for early voting (and on Election Day) is available at vote.utah.gov.
That website also allows online-voter registration, and has a guide with information about candidates and ballot initiatives.
Swensen said she may ask the Salt Lake County Council to consider all-by-mail voting in 2016. Her office has conducted all-by-mail voting by contract for city elections in Cottonwood Heights and West Jordan, and turnout in last year's municipal elections more than doubled. Salt Lake County will offer other cities that option next year. Holladay is one of those exploring making the switch.
"I still get a lot of people who just like going to their local polling locations" on Election Day, or even for early voting, Swensen said. "So right now, I like offering all those options, and let the voter choose."
General election twists
• Nine of 29 counties will vote primarily by mail: Beaver, Cache, Davis, Duchesne, Garfield, Grand, San Juan, Sanpete and Sevier.
• Four counties will offer election-day registration: Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Kane.
• In-person voting in county clerk offices begins Monday. Other in-person early voting is available Oct. 21-31.
• Voter registration by mail ends Monday (for forms sent that day). In-person registration runs through Oct. 27, and online registration runs through Oct. 28.