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‘Vote by mail has worked well for us’: 2 Utah elections officials testify in front of Pennsylvania Legislature

SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Utah’s leading elections officials provided insight into the state’s vote-by-mail system to legislators in Pennsylvania who are reviewing vote-by-mail ballots following criticism during the 2020 election.

Justin Lee, Utah’s director of elections, and Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen each provided written testimony about Utah’s election process ahead of a Pennsylvania Senate special committee hearing on election integrity and reform.

“Vote by mail has worked well for us in Utah,” Lee wrote in his statement, which he read off during the hearing.

Both also answered questions from Pennsylvania lawmakers about how Utah has managed an election system that’s allowed residents statewide to participate in elections without having to find a voting location. During the session Monday, they touted the system’s ability to increase participation while election officials could also catch any potential voter fraud.

Pennsylvania was one of a handful of states where the 2020 election process was scrutinized. President Joe Biden won the state by a little more than 80,000 votes, according to the final election tally; however, former President Donald Trump challenged the state’s election results amid unfounded claims of voter fraud.

The Keystone State was among states that rolled out wider vote-by-mail practices in 2020 due to the public health concerns of COVID-19.

The Supreme Court ultimately decided to dismiss a lawsuit that aimed to reject a little more than 2.5 million ballots cast by mail during the election, NPR reported last December. Utah Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens voted against certifying results from Pennsylvania during the final stage of the presidential election process in January, although the results were accepted by Congress anyway.

The fallout of the election has resulted in many states reviewing vote-by-mail and other voting processes. That’s especially true of states that had contested results in 2020. For example, Georgia lawmakers passed legislation that would limit absentee and early voting — a bill heavily criticized by Democrats in the state, the Associated Press reported on March 1.

Pennsylvania has continued to review its process, taking in feedback from its residents and from other states that laud the vote-by-mail system. Monday’s Pennsylvania senate hearing sought the input of “best practices of election integrity and security from other states.”

That’s why two election officials from Utah were invited to join the hearing Monday through video teleconference.

Utah first allowed a large-scale vote-by-mail process in 2012, and it’s expanded ever since. The 2020 election was the state’s first federal election in which all 29 counties had switched to primarily mail-in voting.

The Beehive State reported a 90% voter turnout among active voters last year, which was a presidential election turnout record for the state. Turnout was 82% in 2016; 21 counties had switched to primarily vote by mail by then. The average turnout for the five presidential elections between 1996 and 2012 was 71.5%.

During Monday’s hearing, Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, asked Lee and Swensen about specifically how switching to vote-by-mail led to increased turnout. Swensen pointed to the origin of vote-by-mail in Salt Lake County in 2013.

“There were two cities that took us up on that offer to conduct their elections by mail and their turnout was 2 ½ to 3 times larger than if it had been in a (comparable) election,” she responded. “One of the huge benefits is the turnout. We’ve seen that increase by vote-by-mail.”

Swenson noted that turnout in Salt Lake County was 82% in 2018 and over 90% in 2020. Both were the record turnouts for the type of elections.

Street commended her for the successes in Salt Lake County. It’s something he said that every county should strive for, whether that’s Utah or Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s a goal we should all look forward to trying — to get 90% in every county across the county,” he said. “Certainly we’d love to see 90% turnout in the commonwealth.”

But more of the questions directed to Utah’s election officials Monday were over how the system works in Utah and how the state handled election security. That included questions about how ballots are tracked and how the state handles ballots of people who have died.

Lee testified that there have been instances of voter fraud within Utah’s vote-by-mail system since it was implemented. These instances were almost always a spouse, partner or parent trying to sign a ballot on behalf of a loved one, and they have been caught during a ballot signature review process. He added there is no indication of any “widespread voter fraud.”

“We verify every single signature against the signatures in the database,” he said. “Our experience in Utah is that vote by mail has proven to be safe and secure.”

Swensen added that a new ballot ID number is issued if a voter moves or their ballot is ruined or misplaced after it was originally sent out. That nullifies the possibility of someone voting twice in an election. The ballot process machine is designed to reject any ballot ID number that’s determined to be “spoiled.”

Salt Lake County uses the National Change of Address to help update its address list every week to ensure a ballot goes to the right address, according to Swensen.

Lee explained that it’s public record in Utah whether or not somebody voted. He added that there was a law recently passed that requires the Office of Vital Statistics and Records to submit a weekly list of residents who recently died so they can be removed from voter rolls.

Pennsylvania Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Newtown, asked Utah’s election representatives if there were any minimums or maximum amounts of ballot dropboxes in Utah. Lee said there wasn’t a statewide minimum or limit; rather, counties can decide on their own if a dropbox is needed.

“That being said, counties are adding more and more dropboxes over the years,” he continued. “Similar to Colorado, more and more voters like the dropboxes. They like knowing they put it in and it’s going straight to the county elections official.”

When asked if there were security issues with the dropboxes that the state has received, Lee added that the only incident he could recall was someone accidentally crashed into a dropbox with their vehicle. He said it ended up providing more damage to the vehicle than the dropbox.

Lee said Utah’s vote-by-mail system isn’t completely perfect but work has been conducted to improve it. The biggest adjustment was to address some ballots that were accidentally held up after the signature didn’t match records that happened because age, injury or use of a “neat or messy signature on a given day” led to the ballot being flagged.

In addition, he said the state is looking to add text or email notifications to allow residents to know the status of their ballot instead of the individual needing to look it up online.

But overall Utah’s found success. The biggest complaint of Utah’s vote-by-mail system, according to Lee, isn’t over the election process or the results of an election; rather, it’s that the state didn’t include an “I Voted” sticker in the ballot package.

“I am not joking, that is by far the biggest complaint that we have received,” he said, adding that it’s a complaint several counties have remedied in recent years.

Election officials from Colorado and Florida also provided testimony as to how they have handled vote-by-mail elections in their states, as well, during the three-hour session. All three states that provided feedback had positive opinions of the vote-by-mail system and touted the way they’ve handled it.

Florida was the only state of the three that doesn’t primarily rely on vote-by-mail and it was the most populated of the trio. David Stafford, the supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Florida, told the Pennsylvania senators Monday that 44% of 2020 voters cast their ballots by mail. That’s compared to 39% who arrived at polls to vote early and 18% who showed up on Election Day.

Still, he testified that it was important for states to ensure they had the current infrastructure in place before they roll out a vote-by-mail system. That includes proper planning, tracking of ballots, and resources for voters to return their ballots.

Meanwhile, Wayne Williams, the former secretary of state for Colorado and current city councilmember for Colorado Springs, Colorado, told Pennsylvania senators that vote-by-mail has led to increasing participation, which is good for the democratic system.

“Voting by mail is a critical way to provide voters the opportunity to fully participate in elections. But to be effective, proper procedures and laws must be implemented,” he said.

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