What Utah's Mail-In Primary Can Tell Us About The November Election
Tuesday is Utah’s primary election, but because of COVID-19 it looks fairly different. No lines to polling places, voting booths or “I Voted” stickers — because the primary election is being conducted almost entirely by mail. Utah has embraced mail-in voting in the past, but never on this scale. To better understand what the lasting impact of this could be, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Marie Paxton Staniforth, an assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: This is a pretty different process for an election than we usually see — what potential problems do you see arising?
Marie Paxton Staniforth: I think it’s a different way of thinking about voting. [Usually], you all turn up at the polls together. You're standing in line. There's that sense of civic engagement and we're all in this together. And with mail-in voting, it kind of removes you from that situation. You're voting individually — on your own timeline.
We have the tendency to think about voting as something that just sort of happens every couple of years, and then we go away and we live our everyday lives. What I would like to see is it be more embedded in society. So it helps to see voting as something that is part of a bigger political process, part of something that really involves and impacts your everyday life.
CB: Because this year is so different with this pandemic, is this an opportunity for us to rethink what voting should be?
MPS: I think so, yeah. If you think about mail-in voting and how it's a really good way to make voting more inclusive. In the pandemic where people might be choosing between their health or exercising their right to vote and potentially even choosing between their life and their right to vote — that's not necessarily a new issue. I think that it's just become more widespread. If you look at communities that are disproportionately affected by issues of access to voting — so communities of color, communities that are low income, people who are disabled, the elderly — all of those people are also disproportionately affected by the pandemic and endangered by it.
So if we're not thinking in terms of how to make that more accessible, then it's almost like double discrimination. I really hope that this isn't something that we see as: once the pandemic is over, we don't have to think about these things anymore.
CB: National Republican leaders like President Trump have opposed mail-in voting, saying it will lead to voter fraud and it'll be too difficult to manage. Why is that, when states that have embraced vote by mail have not seen evidence of widespread fraud and elections experts say it can actually lead to an increase in turnout?
MPS: There’s some concern that perhaps increasing voter turnout through mail-in voting will give an advantage to one side over the other and that's linked into these concerns about fraud. But there's been research done that shows that over 20 years there is like a 0.00006% fraud rate. It's really miniscule and it's not affecting the results.
On top of that, states have these mitigating measures — things like putting in barcode scanning, signature matching, tracking your vote. And then on top of that, we see 70% of Americans are actually in favor of voting by mail, which shows that there is bipartisan support for this. That brings me back to what you mentioned about President Trump and the concerns behind those types of statements, because ultimately that could undermine people's faith in the electoral system. And so I think it's really, really important to use that research to combat those claims and to show that this is a safe way of voting.
CB: How do Utah's political parties generally view mail-in voting? Does it reflect their national counterparts?
MPS: No. And I think Utah is a really interesting case because Mitt Romney has used Utah as a case to say, “well, actually, mail-in voting doesn't necessarily negatively impact Republicans and that we've been doing it well.” Utah is really rare in that it's one of the few states that primarily conducts all of its elections by mail. But then on top of that, it's the only one that's Republican leaning and doing that.
CB: And Utah, of course, does still lean Republican with mail-in votes coming in.
MPS: Yeah, exactly, which I think combats this narrative of “mail-in voting helps the Democrats.”
CB: How could this primary election change how we vote in the future, especially in November's general election?
MPS: As we move from now until the 2020 Presidential election, we’re definitely going to see more and more mail-in voting and more and more talk about different ways of going out and voting — or staying in and voting. I think one thing that's important is that in democracy and in politics, nothing is ever perfect. And so, mail-in voting is really, really important and it's a really great step for making democracy more inclusive. But it's important to remember that it's never fully perfect. And so thinking about people experiencing homelessness, Native Americans living on reservations — there are still difficulties even with mail-in voting and there are still people who are being excluded. It's really important that we keep having these conversations and continuing to think about how we can keep making democracy and our voting better and better.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews