Voting in the Time of Coronavirus.

AuthorCortellessa, Eric


South of Salt Lake City, Utah, there's an idyllic hilltop neighborhood called Suncrest. It's a planned community, with hundreds of modern single-family houses stretched out across nearly 4,000 acres of canyons, trails, and Gambel oak trees. If you look in one direction, you see the adjacent mountains that include the ski resorts Alta, Solitude, and Brighton. In the other direction, you can see the wide expanse of the city. That's part of Suncrest's appeal: It's only 15 miles from the largest city in the state, but it feels like a quiet mountain town.

It also happens to be the place that best illustrates the solution to America's historically low voter turnout. The U.S. already has some of the lowest participation rates in the developed world. The new coronavirus threatens to make that problem even worse by turning the act of voting itself into a potential health risk.

While Suncrest feels like one community--it has one Mormon church and one restaurant--it's divided into two counties: Salt Lake and Utah. In fact, the county line runs right down the middle of it. Both sides are similar in population size; each is 90 percent white. In the 2016 election, however, they had dramatically different voter turnout rates. Suncrest's Salt Lake County residents showed up to vote at a rate nearly 18 percentage points higher than their Utah County counterparts, with about 81 percent of Salt Lake's registered voters casting ballots compared to Utah's 63 percent.

What made the difference? The two counties used different voting systems. Whereas Utah County stuck with the traditional model of people lining up at polling places to cast ballots, Salt Lake County switched to conducting its election entirely by mail. Under that system, otherwise known as "vote at home," voters receive their ballots in the mail weeks before Election Day and can either mail them back or drop them off at a secure site. In other words, Suncrest, a demographically homogenous community, offered something no other part of the country has: a natural experiment to compare traditional voting to voting at home.

Usually, an electoral reform is deemed successful if it increases voter participation by a few percentage points. The jump in Salt Lake County's turnout was on a whole other level. And the disparity wasn't limited to Suncrest. In that same election, 21 of Utah's 29 counties had switched to vote at home. Those counties had an average turnout rate nearly 9 percentage points higher than those that voted the old-fashioned way--and 5 percent higher than was predicted by a generally accurate turnout forecast, according to a study by Pantheon Analytics that was commissioned by the Washington Monthly.

The success of those counties led six of the remaining eight holdouts, including Utah County, to try vote at home in the 2018 midterm election. Sure enough, Suncrest's Utah side turned out 8 percentage points higher than it did two years earlier. Such an increase was especially unusual given that midterms generally see lower turnout than presidential elections. Now, in 2020, Utah will run its first statewide election entirely by mail.

That has lessons for the rest of the country. For the past few presidential elections, national turnout has hovered around 55 percent of eligible voters; for the past few midterm elections, it has fluctuated from the mid-30s to the 50s. Before counties started mailing out ballots, Utah's voter participation hadn't been much better. But it addressed the issue, taking a cue from other states that were experimenting with vote at home to boost turnout.

In the process, Utah has not only shown how to get more people to vote. It has also demonstrated how to overcome the political resistance that electoral reforms inevitably run into: by allowing county election officials to opt in when they're ready. Election administrators quickly found the system much cheaper and easier to run. Voters fell in love with the ease of mailing in their ballots.

Other states have also seen success with this opt-in approach. Colorado first tried vote at home for primaries and local races, before using it in all elections. Washington transitioned to vote at home on a county-by-county basis, and Arizona, California, and Montana are in the midst of the same process.

In California's March 2020 primary election, Orange County used vote at home; 47 percent of its registered voters cast ballots. Los Angeles County didn't; its turnout rate was far lower, at 29 percent. Part of the difference was that Los Angeles County was using new...

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