Voter rights under attack again in Utah

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
We are now in week two of the legislative session and the political stakes and chatter are starting to increase. Two bills that relate to electoral participation are of particular concern.

HB244, Voting and Voter Registration Amendments, sponsored by Rep. Jake Anderegg, would require a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Since proof of citizenship is required to get a driver’s license–and voter ID is required when voting–the bill is entirely punitive, redundant and unnecessary. Its design is clear: to suppress Utah’s already low voter turnout rates.

This bill would add an undue burden on clerks and any organization or individual that might work on registering people to vote, like non-profit good government groups like Alliance for a Better UTAH and the League of Women Voters, as well as the various political parties. But there’s more: the bill would likely be in violation of federal election law.

In fact, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar law in Arizona that would have also required citizenship verification. Federal election law prohibits state voter registration forms from requiring more information than federal voter registration forms. Right now, the state registration form doubles as the federal voter registration form–that would change if Anderegg’s law passes. If this bill passed it would make clerks hold two separate elections–one federal and one state. You can imagine how expensive that would get. Fortunately Anderegg has been getting pushback. It looks like he is having second thoughts and may be willing to substitute a bill that would require an audit or review of state registrations to determine if this issue even exists or if, like many bills like this, it is a solution looking for a problem.

The second voter bill, HB252, Absentee Ballot Amendments, sponsored by Rep. Jim Bird, would eliminate the option of mail-only elections. Bird claims that people need the option to vote in person at a polling facility if they so choose, rather than by mail. It doesn’t appear that Rep. Bird is very familiar with mail-only elections–turns out the bill isn’t necessary because currently, when a county or municipality has held mail-only elections, they have still left available options for in-person voting, typically at the county seat or clerk’s office.

Bird’s bill would also be a burden on rural parts of the state. To eliminate the ability of the clerk and local officials to select a mail-only option would put an added burden on clerks from rural counties where they may not have the facilities to hold an in-person election, and where numbers are too small and too spread out to reasonably coordinate so many polling places.

There is also the fact that mail-only elections have had higher–in many occasions significantly higher–voter turnout rates. Voting by mail provides a more convenient way for people to participate, especially if they have to drive long distances to the polling place, are employed in shiftwork, if their hours overlap with polling hours, or if they are ill or home-bound. More and more states are testing mail-only elections and finding their turnout and participation levels consistently increase.

As has been the case throughout the nation in recent years, voting rights are under attack. This is unfortunately true in Utah as well. With already significantly low voter turnout rates, legislators should be considering any and all efforts to increase access to the polls, not restrict them. Anderegg and Bird’s bills are the problem, not the solution.

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