The last hours of many legislative sessions are filled with unexpected and sometimes hard to explain events. Yesterday (March 14), the last day of the Utah 2013 legislative session was definitely one of those cases. For years, the media, scholars and politicians have bemoaned the fact that the state has suffered from low voter turnout. The Salt Lake Tribune, reporting on the close of the session summarized the low turnout dilemma:
The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy — formed by former Gov. Jon Huntsman to find ways to improve voter turnout — made Election Day registration a top priority, but the idea has foundered for five years since it was recommended.
Utah voter turnout is among the nation’s lowest. In 2010, 36.2 percent of Utah’s voting-eligible population cast ballots — ranking No. 49 among the 50 states. In 2012 when favorite-son Mitt Romney was running for president, that rose to 55.4 percent — but still ranked only No. 38, and was still below the national average of 58.2 percent.
Utah has an interesting form of same day registration as part of the statute pertaining to provisional ballots. If a voter fails to re-register or update their registration by the legal registration deadlines, the voter can cast a provisional ballot at the polling place assigned to their new address and that ballot will be counted provided the voter was previously registered, at anytime, anywhere in the state. The statewide registration system makes this easy to verify and simple to verify that the voter has not previously voted. The vast majority of provisional ballots cast (75%+) fall into this category. The net result is same day registration for a sub-set of the state’s residents.
The ballots of voters who showed up on election day, cast a provisional ballot but were not previously registered in the state yet are otherwise qualified are not counted. These voters are registered for future elections but the registration is not effective for that election. The majority of provisional ballots not counted in the state fall into this category.
The upshot of the statute is that one group who ignores or fails to meet arbitrary registration deadlines gets their vote counted and another group who fails to meet the same deadlines does not. To close this gap, Rep Rebecca Houck has sponsored a bill for the last five years which would close the loophole and would permit the provisional ballots for all eligible voters who show up on election day at the correct polling place to count.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, has noted that Utah law now allows people to register on Election Day and cast provisional ballots. While that is used to register them for future elections, the provisional ballots are discarded if officials find those people were not previously registered in Utah.
“What this bill does is allow the vote to be counted,” Jenkins [the Republican Senate Sponsor] said. “This allows you to register and vote on same day if you prove your residency and identity.”
Previous attempts to pass the bill met partisan resistance and did not make it to a vote. This year, however, the bill had support from both major political parties and the House passed the bill after hearing testimony in favor by the State Republican Party, State Democratic Party, League of Women Voters and the head of the Utah Tea Party. The only testimony in opposition came from County Clerks—who complained it would be too much work. As the bill proceeded to the Senate and passed out of committee, the Clerk’s Association mounted the bill’s only opposition.
A bill to allow Election Day voter registration died Thursday — ironically killed by election officials who worried that it could work too well, and cause them too much work, in a state that has among the worst voter turnout in the nation.
HB91 died on a 10-18 vote in the Senate, after earlier passing the House 58-14.
Most of the opposition cited was from county clerks who said it could create more work than they could now handle between when votes are cast and when counts must be finalized.
This case is representative of election administrators across the country and is not merely a Utah aberration. Clerks and administrators are not effective policy makers nor is it their function. The role of administrators should be to inform policymakers about proposed legislation and to even take positions on bills. There is a fair question of where genuine support and opposition of a proposal ends and where active lobbying and activism for a bill begin. That line can be fuzzy and may not be meaningful much of the time.
However, when opposition by election officials to a measure, which is uniformly agreed by all parties to be in the interest of voters and the electoral process (as in this case), is based solely on avoiding additional work, the personal competence, the profession’s credibility and the integrity of the process is rightfully scrutinized, and even called into question, by the public. The passage of good public policy should not be thwarted by complaints by election administrators that it is “too hard” or by their exaggerated estimates of time and cost.