New bill expands Utah voter options in the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 3:52 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 19:56:20-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced in the Utah State Legislature ahead of a Thursday special session would provide more options for voters to turn in their ballot.

House Bill 6009, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, and Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, would expand voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have high integrity with our election process in the state of Utah," Rep. Handy said. "Vote-by-mail works. We know it works."

The bill keeps existing voter options in place, including in-person balloting and same-day voter registration. But it has a provision that allows for the Lt. Governor's office to suspend in-person voting in an area if there's a state of emergency. In that case, there must still be other options including "drive-thru" voting or an "outdoor voting" location.

The bill also expands the ability for county clerks to add "drive-thru" voting in addition to vote-by-mail and in-person voting. It also allows for additional drop boxes across the state for people to deposit their ballot.

The bill also increased the penalty for "ballot harvesting" from an infraction to a class A misdemeanor. Ballot harvesting, which is the practice of collecting someone else's ballot, is largely illegal in Utah (with some exceptions for same households or those with disabilities).

Utah has successfully carried out vote-by-mail elections for years, and there will be an emphasis on it this year with the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump has repeatedly blasted mail-in balloting and called it "fraudulent," but Utah political leaders have ignored his criticisms and insisted it has had very few problems with it.

While Utah elections officials have said they are not anticipating issues with the U.S. Postal Service like other states, lawmakers appeared to be seeking to expand options just in case.

"We want to get the most number of people voting," Sen. Harper told the legislature's Interim Government Operations Committee.

Some members of the committee wanted to add increased options this year. Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, asked for ballots to go out 28 days before the election instead of 21. Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, also asked for three weeks to canvass election results because of a higher-than-normal amount of ballots expected.

Rep. Handy said he did not oppose those expansions.

"This is to provide a safe and responsible and a legal framework so we can have an election here in November that is of the highest integrity," he said. "It’ll be done correctly and people can have confidence their vote has been counted."