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Cottonwood Heights goes to mail-only voting for municipal elections

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 4:20 p.m. MDT

When voters in Cottonwood Heights cast their ballots this year for their municipal races, they will not go to the polls. They'll go to the mailbox instead. The city hopes by making voting more convenient, it will increase voter turnout.

Jared Hargrave, Deseret News

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — To encourage greater voter participation, Cottonwood Heights will not have voting at traditional polling places for the primary and general elections this year.

The city is a test case to see if voting by mail increases voter turnout by making the process more convenient.

"We want to help people exercise their franchise to vote,” Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore said. “That is the fundamental right of citizenship in this country, and I believe that voting by mail is one of the ways we can facilitate that the best."

In the 2012 presidential election, more than 6,000 voters in Cottonwood Heights requested vote-by-mail ballots, according the Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. More than 5,000 of those voters, or 84 percent, returned their ballots.

Countywide, Swensen said 130,000 voters are signed up to vote by mail permanently. In November, 85,000 voted early at the polls.

“In a presidential election, they get a higher voter turnout,” Cullimore said. “In midyear elections, it drops off, and (it drops) even further for municipal elections.”

In Cottonwood Heights, 86 percent of registered voters took part in the city's first municipal election in 2004. In subsequent elections, voter participation dropped to roughly 40 percent in 2007 and 20 percent in 2009 and 2011, the mayor said.

Last year, Duchesne County became the first in the state to eliminate all of its polling places on Election Day, going exclusively to mail-in voting for all elections. As a result, voter turnout there skyrocketed from 58 percent in 2008 to 82 percent in 2012.

West Jordan and Sunset also have made the change to voting by mail.

The Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office is studying the feasibility of transitioning all of Utah to a mail-only election system. A committee will study the ramifications as early as this fall, but it would be at least 2015 before such a change could be made, according to Mark Thomas, state director of elections. Washington and Oregon vote by mail statewide.

“Every active voter from the last four years will receive a ballot in the mail automatically,” Cullimore said. “Registered voters who have not participated in the last four years will get a postcard inviting them to request a ballot.”

Voting by mail will also give voters more time to review candidates, research the issues and make a decision.

“They have a lot of time,” Swensen said. “They’re not surprised. They know what’s on the ballot.”

The ballots are mailed out 30 days before the election. Voters can mail it back up until the day before the election. If they miss the deadline, the ballot can be dropped off on Election Day at any other polling location in the county.

For those voters who need assistance or who did not receive a ballot, they may vote at a vote center at City Hall on Election Day.

In addition to being more convenient for voters, the city hopes to save money with a vote-by-mail program. It costs Cottonwood Heights $77,000 to put on an election, Swensen said, including the cost of the electronic voting machines and training the volunteers.

While the process is more convenient, some people have raised concerns about possible voter fraud.

Swensen said there is a system in place to prevent that. Each ballot comes with an affidavit that must be signed by the voter. The signature is compared with the signature on that voter’s registration form.

“We do a signature comparison for every ballot we receive back in the office,” Swensen said.

And while voting by mail is convenient, some people wonder when voting on the Internet will take place.

“Maybe someday,” Swensen said. “They haven’t been able to secure that, but definitely the vote by mail is catching on.”

Email: jboal@deseretnews.com

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