Justice

How Utah Nearly Doubled Voter Turnout With One Change

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

When comparing states by their voter turnout, Utah consistently ranks as one of the worst. In 2014, for example, just 29.6 percent of eligible voters in the Beehive State cast a ballot, a record low for the state.

But Utah officials may have found an easy way to significantly boost their voter turnout rates: voting by mail.

Since 2009, Utah has tested out a number of voting reforms designed to increase participation, including online voter registration and pilot projects allowing voters to register on Election Day, as well as mail-in voting.

The Utah Foundation, a public policy think tank, looked at turnout data over the past few municipal elections in a report released last week. They found that those municipalities that implemented voting by mail saw major increases in their turnout rates.

“Utah cities conducting all vote-by-mail elections saw an average increase in turnout from 21 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2015,” the report said.

Researchers found that the effect was particularly pronounced in smaller communities rather than larger cities. Still, some cities saw major gains as well. Salt Lake City, for instance, saw its turnout rate soar to 55 percent in 2015 from 13 percent in 2013 and 24 percent in 2011.

“It’s been smoother on our end; it’s been smoother on (voters’) end,” Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told the Deseret News after a primary election in August of this year. “We’ve just had a great response.”

Why is this election reform so successful? “Vote-by-mail can increase awareness about smaller elections and potentially have larger turnout in localized issues,” the report concluded. In addition, the convenience factor, especially for workers who can’t take time off on a Tuesday in November, can’t be overlooked. Further boosting vote-by-mail’s case is the fact that it saves states millions in taxpayer dollars by eliminating the need for in-person polling places.

Some caveats do apply. The authors acknowledged that vote-by-mail could have benefited from a “novelty” effect that may fade over time. In addition, whether mail-in voting would have the same outsized effect in non-municipal elections, such as those for Congress or governor, remains in question.

Three states currently conduct all their elections by mail: Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, which just recently joined the club. All three consistently rank among the top states by turnout, and far outperform neighboring states.