Why Vote-by-mail?

Why Vote-by-mail?
Posted on 08/01/2017

By Council Member J. Scott Bracken

In 2013, Cottonwood Heights became one of the first Utah cities to go to a vote-by-mail system for our municipal election. The right (and duty) to vote is fundamental to our chosen form of governance. Ensuring the best opportunity to cast a ballot by every registered voter is essential.

Making just about any process as convenient and simple as possible increases participation. After reviewing the proposal from the county clerk’s office, the city council decided to implement vote-by-mail and hoped that by doing so, voter participation would increase. Our first two municipal elections, in 2009 and 2011 had turnouts of 14 percent and 21percent respectively. Since the implementation of vote-by-mail, turnouts (the number of ballots cast over the total number of ballots possible) in 2013 and 2015 were over 40 percent each. In my view, it was a great success, and a win for representative governance.

We still get many questions about voting by mail, and I hope to address some of the most common ones in this article.  Most deal with timing, security, and ballot handling. There is a short informational video on the Salt Lake County Clerk’s YouTube site https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSOa3ufqOBc  that gives a good overview of the process (Cottonwood Heights contracts vote-by-mail with the county clerk’s office). Understanding the process raises confidence in the system. The county clerk’s office uses best practices to ensure ballot security and privacy.

Ballots are mailed out at least three weeks before the election (CH will hold a Municipal Primary on Aug. 15 and a Muncipal Election on Nov. 7).  This gives those in the military, or are otherwise not at their registered mailing address, time to receive their ballots, fill them out, and get them mailed back to the clerk’s office for tabulation. It also has the benefit of giving voters two to three weeks to find a convenient time to fill out their ballot.  One big advantage of being able to do it at the voter’s convenience is being able to research unfamiliar candidates, propositions, constitutional amendments, etc. I remember standing in a voting booth in the last century and wondering, ”What is this proposition?,” reading some of the not-so-easy-to-decipher language, and wondering how best to proceed. With my ballot in-hand at home and my PC at the ready, I can research candidates and other ballot issues to my heart’s content – thereby becoming a better, more informed voter.

Ballots are sent in special envelopes that are clearly marked ‘Official Ballot Enclosed.’ When you open the envelope, you find not only the ballot itself, but a postage-paid return envelope, and instructions/information on how to enclose your ballot for return to ensure its privacy and

 security. The ballot itself will not have any personally identifiable information on it. Your name, address, etc. are ONLY printed on the envelopes – never on the ballot that gets tabulated.

Once you have filled out your ballot, insert the ballot into its privacy sleeve (there to give an added layer of protection, if you happen to forget it, your ballot will still be counted), place that into the return envelope, sign the affidavit, seal it, and put it in the mail.  You can also drop it directly into any ballot drop box like the one at City Hall or the county office complex. 

If you make a mistake in filling out your ballot, you can cross it out and make your correct choice. Be sure to clearly mark it (do NOT sign the change on the ballot) – staff will ensure that ballot is tabulated the way the voter noted.

Envelopes must be mailed prior to election day. If you happen to find your unmailed ballot on Election Day, you need to take it to a ballot drop box or a voting center personally and turn it in. If you find your ballot after election day … sorry, you’re too late and you will need to wait until the next election to vote.

Once ballots arrive at the clerk’s office, security protocols ensure that at least two staff members are with the ballots at all times. Each envelope’s affidavit signature is compared to the signature on file and the voter is given credit for voting in the election (note, the ballot itself is still securely enclosed in its privacy sleeve inside the return envelope – it won’t be removed until any issues with the affidavit are resolved). If there is a problem with the signature (missing, incorrect – like if you and your spouse signed the other’s envelope, not a match to what’s on file, etc.) that return envelope goes to a different area for staff to make contact via mail with the registered voter to determine if the voter did actually cast the ballot inside. Once the issue is resolved, the returned envelope goes back into the processing queue. Then and only then are the return envelopes opened and the ballot (still in its privacy sleeve) is separated. Ballots are then moved to the tabulation area – all other materials are stored separately.

I know that there are still some voters who like the social interaction of physically going to the polls on Election Day. As in the past, there will be a voting center with election judges and machines set up at City Hall, where you can cast your vote. But if you have your ballot with you and filled out, you won’t have to wait in a line (just put it in the drop box – or hand it to an election judge), and you can spend more time socializing with your neighbors.

The elections staff work hard to ensure that every legitimately cast vote is counted. I appreciate their work. It’s also satisfying to see the higher turnout numbers on our municipal election returns.