In the suburbs of Salt Lake City, there is a planned community called Suncrest that has turned out to be a good place to study voter turnout. Suncrest feels like one community, full of modern, single-family houses. But it straddles two counties – Salt Lake and Utah. And in 2016, the two used different voting systems.
Salt Lake County switched to mail-based voting, which meant that all registered voters would receive a ballot at their home a few weeks before Election Day. They could then mail it back or drop it off at a county office. In Utah County, by contrast, residents still voted the old-fashioned way. They had to visit their local polling place, Ridgeline Elementary School, on Election Day.
It was a natural experiment – with impressive results. Turnout in the Salt Lake County portion of Suncrest rose much more than in the Utah County portion. The convenience of voting by mail led more people to do so.
It wasn’t just Suncrest, either. In the 21 Utah counties that used mail voting in 2016, turnout was between 5 and 7 percentage points higher than expected, according to a new study by Pantheon Analytics, commissioned by Washington Monthly magazine. That’s an enormous effect, as Amelia Showalter, the study’s lead author, pointed out to me. “Normally,” said Showalter, who advises campaigns, “we are thrilled if an intervention increases turnout by 1 or 2 percentage points.”
This is a funny time for voting rights. On the one hand, some Republicans are engaged in a shameful effort to restrict voting access. They are telling lies about voter fraud – which remains extremely rare – and pushing for laws to suppress turnout by Democratic-leaning groups, especially African-Americans. It’s nothing less than an attack on democracy, made possible by several recent Supreme Court rulings.
Yet this attack has also helped feed counterattack. The counterattack is being led more by Democrats than Republicans. But as Utah – among the reddest states of all – shows, there are also a good number of Republicans who believe in expanding voting rights.
Thank goodness. The United States continues to suffer from some of the lowest turnouts in the developed world. It is one reason government policy often doesn’t reflect public opinion. It also makes it easier for extremists, like President Donald Trump, to get elected. The expansion of voting rights is crucial to fixing our politics.
After digging into the research, I’ve come to think that universal vote-by-mail may have the biggest potential to lift turnout. It eliminates hurdles, like long lines at polling places and logistical difficulties of voting on a workday. (As a bonus, it usually saves money.)
The research on the turnout effects is still in the early stages. So far, though, no other reform can claim as much encouraging evidence as mail-based voting.
The Utah analysis, which is being released Monday, follows a peer-reviewed study of Washington state that found voting-by-mail increased turnout between 2 and 4 percentage points. In both states, turnout rose the most among groups that tended to vote the least, such as younger adults. Colorado and Oregon also have all-mail voting – and above-average turnout.
The practice is spreading, too. California is moving to all-mail voting this year. Parts of Arizona, Minnesota, North Dakota and other states have adopted it, too.
If your state or county still isn’t willing to switch, however, there are other ways to expand voting rights. Thanks partly to a push by the Brennan Center for Justice, 12 states have recently adopted automatic voter registration, and more are considering it. Automatic registration, which is the norm in much of the world, lets citizens become eligible to vote when they renew a driver’s license or otherwise interact with the government.
Another voting-rights push involves restoring the franchise for people who previously served prison sentences. Florida, Louisiana and Virginia, among others, have recently made progress here. Still other states have increased early-voting hours.
Expanding voting rights usually isn’t easy. It requires a dedicated political effort and consistent pushback against falsehoods and scare tactics. But when the effort works, it often proves enduring – because most Americans believe in the idea of universal, convenient voting.
Just consider what happened this year in Utah County. That’s the county, you’ll recall, that includes part of Suncrest and didn’t use vote-by-mail in 2016. After officials there announced that the county would again require in-person voting in 2018, citizens and some local politicians became outraged and protested. They worried that they would have less of a political voice than other Utahans.
Voting by mail, Michelle Kaufusi, the mayor of Provo, explained, “gets higher voter turnout around here, and the whole idea of our system is to let ordinary citizens influence things through their votes.”
Sure enough, the county relented, and Utah County has joined the vote-by-mail revolution for this week’s primaries in Utah.