SALT LAKE CITY — Vote by mail was an essential step to mitigating the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but Utah election officials say mail-in ballots have more advantages than just preventing the spread of disease.
County clerks along the Wasatch Front are optimistic that voter turnout for August's municipal primaries — for which ballots have been delivered and early voting has already begun — will carry over some of the momentum from last November's large voter turnout.
"The last time Utah County had mayoral elections, we didn't do vote by mail," said Utah County Clerk Josh Daniels. "So the question will be, 'Does Utah's adoption of vote by mail change our historic turnout?'"
A typical primary pulls in about 15-20% of the ballots sent out. This number can fluctuate depending on if there's more interest in an election, like a mayoral election with a well-known challenger against the incumbent. However, 2020 showed a remarkable voter turnout, and county clerks wonder if the 2021 primaries will yield similar numbers.
Daniels anticipates a 10-15% uptick in turnout, meaning that around one-third of Utah County registered voters are expected to vote in the Aug. 10 primary. The two largest cities in the county — Provo and Orem — will be winnowing down mayoral candidates for the November election.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen hopes for a 40% turnout, but isn't sure that the county will reach that goal with the slow trickle of ballots returning this week. Only 6,000 ballots were received out of 167,000 sent out to registered voters. Still, Swenson notes that different cities will be different, and anticipates a higher turnout for mayoral elections, like those in Alta, Herriman, and West Valley City.
Weber County already saw an increased turnout with the introduction of mail-in voting. County Clerk Ricky Hatch anticipates a 35% turnout for the primary elections, noting that it'd likely be 20% lower without ballots mailed to a voter's doorstep.
"People are busy and you don't think of municipal primaries as much," said Hatch. "But when a ballot arrives at your home, you're much more likely to open it up and vote than if you had to drive somewhere to vote."
Four municipalities in Weber County will be having a primary election: North Ogden, Ogden, Washington Terrace and West Haven.
Avoiding a primary by going to ranked-choice voting
Primary ballots have been sent out for most Utahns by now, but not everyone is going to get one thanks to a new form of voting. This is because 23 municipalities have chosen to forgo the primary and use ranked-choice voting in the general election, which will allow residents to rank their candidates from most to least favorite.
Those 23 municipalities, which will no longer hold a primary for the 2021 election, are South Salt Lake, Magna, Bluffdale, Draper, Lehi, Payson, Riverton, Springville, Vineyard, Goshen, Newton, Woodland Hills, Genola, Sandy, Nibley City, Millcreek, Moab, River Heights, Cottonwood Heights, Elk Ridge, Salt Lake City, Midvale, and Heber City.
Supporters of ranked-choice voting hope the method will discourage negative campaigning, but critics think it may confuse residents and shorten the length of time candidates have to connect with their constituents.
So the question will be, 'Does Utah's adoption of vote by mail change our historic turnout?'
–Josh Daniels, Utah County clerk
Candidates who want to run in cities using ranked-choice voting need to file their candidacy papers between Aug. 10-17. The filing deadline for municipal primaries was the first week of June.
One advantage to doing away with the primary is the cost advantage for a city.
Daniels estimates that every registered voter costs the city an average of $2.25 for an election. For a city like Draper, with an adult population of about 33,000, skipping a primary saves nearly $75,000. For Salt Lake City, the savings are upward of $315,000.
When can you vote?
If you are a registered voter and live in a city that is still holding a primary election, ballots should have already been sent to your registered address.
The deadline to register to vote to participate in this primary is Friday. Registration can be done at vote.utah.gov. There is also same-day voter registration at vote centers during polling hours, both during early voting and on Election Day.
Mail-in ballots must be postmarked a day before the primary, by Aug. 9. If Aug. 10 comes and you still have a ballot to send in, county clerks recommend that you place your ballot in a county drop-box before the polls close at 8 p.m. to make sure your vote is counted. Anyone has the option to drop off their ballot before this time, and Daniels recommends to do so to save on postage and know that your ballot is getting to its destination.
Davis County Clerk Brian McKenzie advises voters to mail out their ballots no later than the Friday before the election, just to ensure that the ballot is postmarked with plenty of time to spare.
In-office early voting has already started in Salt Lake County, and will run through Aug. 6, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Salt Lake County Government Center only. Early voting at the locations listed will take place from Aug. 3-6 from 3 to 7 p.m.
Early voting for Utah County will be held Aug. 4-9 at the Utah County Administration Building in Provo. Weber County early voting is open the same dates at polling locations.
Registered voters who have not received a ballot yet should make sure their registration is current at vote.utah.gov or contact their county clerk's office.
Correction: An earlier version of this story falsely stated that Weber County does not have in-person voting options. Early voting opens Aug. 4.