Bob Bernick’s notebook: Is vote-by-mail too successful?

Utah’s mail-in balloting process is becoming very successful.

Maybe too successful.

UtahPolicy is hearing that GOP legislative leaders are considering doing something this session about the mail-in voting process in the state.

It’s a process that has become very popular among voters – but not necessarily popular among incumbent legislators, who have to deal with the real-world election process.

First, some numbers.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen – who has been running the state’s largest elections for, like, forever — says that in the 2016 presidential election year, 353,000 county voters cast their ballots via mail-in ballots.

That turned out to be 84 percent of all ballots cast in the November 2016 election in the county.

Only 3.5 percent of voters took advantage of Swensen’s early voting in person process.

With the rest of the voters going to the polls the old fashion way – on Election Day itself.

Mail-in balloting can be a bit confusing the first time you do it – mostly you have to remember to sign the ballot in the proper place.

But clearly a lot of Salt Lakers really like the convenience of mail-in voting.

Current law says the clerk can send out ballots 28 days before Election Day. It takes a few days for a registered voter to get the ballot in the mail, maybe a day or two to file it out and send it back.

Swensen says her office sees a lot of ballots coming back quickly – those folks already know who they are going to vote for and don’t wait around.

Then the ballot mails slow down a bit.

And then picks up again a lot as Election Day nears.

But overall, citizens really like mail-in balloting, says Swensen.

Swensen says it would be “a terrible, terrible idea” to do anything that harms the availability of mail-in balloting.

Already, her office, and those of other large Wasatch Front counties, “get slammed” with ballots pouring in just before Election Day.

As it is, a large number of mail-in ballots come in the day before Election Day, and sometimes they all can’t be counted on election night.

That means some races – i.e. legislative races, because honestly those are really the only ones lawmakers care about – aren’t known for a week or two when the final vote canvass is made.

Lawmakers hate that.

UtahPolicy is being told that most candidates don’t like mail-in balloting, for a number of reasons.

Some of these concerns are legitimate – vote by mail is making campaigns more expensive, mainly because a candidate has to time his campaign mailers coming into voters’ homes over a longer time frame – maybe even up to four weeks before Election Day.

So, with four-week mail-in balloting, what’s the best strategy for political parties and candidates to pursue?

Most often, UtahPolicy is told, candidates and party bosses just don’t know.

This session there are several bipartisan ballot/registration reform bills.

GOP legislative bosses are considering taking all of those bills off the table and go with one large bill (less chance that such a big bill will be messed with via amendments, I’m told).

Those who want more people voting will get:

— Every voter will automatically get vote-by-mail ballots when he registers.

— Election Day registration will become automatic, with the option that the voter can opt-in for continuing vote by mail.

Conservatives who worry – probably unjustly – about voter fraud will get:

— If a person fails to vote in just two general elections – like 2016 and 2018 – then his name will be scrubbed from vote by mail rolls.

He’ll have to reregister to vote by mail in 2020.

However, the bill may also allow automatic voter registration every time you renew your driver’s license.

While voter scrubbing has not been a big deal in Utah before, it certainly has in other states – especially in states where racial minority voters show up at the polls only to be told they aren’t registered anymore and can’t vote.

The same-day voter registration/balloting provision in Utah would in theory help solve that potential problem.

So, the proposed “omnibus” voter registration/vote by mail bill should be a fair compromise, I’m being told.

The question will remain, will conservative GOP legislators in the House and Senate mess with the bill, amending out parts that make it easier to vote, keeping in parts that help make their own campaigns less expensive and easier to win.