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Mail-in voting 101

How, when and why to vote by mail.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the nation is turning to mail-in voting to prevent the need for people to gather to voting locations. While many states are working out the details of mail-in voting, Utah enjoys an advantage: We’ve done this before. In this and in previous elections, every active registered voter in the state gets a mail-in ballot. But if this is your first time voting, or your first time voting by mail, the process can appear a little daunting. With a little foresight, however, it can be a convenient way for many to do their civic duty.

We spoke with Baodong Liu, professor of political science, to discuss the how, when and why of mail-in voting.

Baodong Liu

Utah is one of a few states that had conducted widespread mail-in voting prior to 2020. How is this an advantage in this unusual year?

Utah has been one of the most publicized states in the country that has used mail-in ballots. One example was in the 2020 Democratic National Convention when the representative for the State of Utah mentioned our mail-in ballots and urged Americans, especially Democrats, to be confident in the way our state has been able to use it. I’m proud to say that we are one of the best.
Beginning in 2013, a majority of counties used the mail-in ballot. For the most part, Utahns have embraced it. And for the most part, we as a state have managed the ballot pretty well. It is pretty easy to follow. It takes literally minutes to finish. I have used it and my family has used it.

The postmark date deadline is usually on Election Day. In the mail-in states, that’s pretty much the standard. [Note: Utah voters’ mail-in ballots must be postmarked by the U.S. Post Office the day before Election Day, November 2, 2020. You can also drop your ballot off at a drop box location before 8:00 pm on Election Day.] But it doesn’t mean the government will receive it on Election Day. Utah is one of the most generous states in the country. We allow 13 days after Election Day for final arrival. So that makes Utah a very accessible state to use mail-in ballot as a main or primary mode of voting.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of mail-in voting?

The advantage is obvious, right? You save time by not making the trip to the voting place. And especially in a pandemic, when the environment can be so dangerous, using mail-in voting will save you not only time, but also the trouble of getting infected by a virus.

Time does matter when we, as political scientists, study how the cost of voting is calculated. For some people, driving to a voting place costs not only time but also money. Some people in rural areas may have to drive far away to a voting place to cast their vote. And sometimes they have to wait in a very long line. So that’s the cost. And in this country, cost matters. When you have a high cost, people tend to be reluctant, and some of them decided just to stay home and not to even cast their vote.

Mail-in can be intimidating and sometimes confusing, especially for those folks who had been used to the traditional way of voting. And they feel a sense of control when they go to a voting place and cast their vote; they feel like that their vote will be counted and their voice will be heard. That’s one reason why a lot of Americans today want to use early voting. Another disadvantage is: What if you sign it and somehow your signature is in question? That is still a big part of future debates.

So it is on the part of government to do its job effectively and help people feel safe and count their votes. It is hard to force people to completely use either mail-in or in-person voting. And political scientists, myself included, encourage different forms of voting to get people empowered to decide what they want to do. Mail-in certainly should be a great option for people who feel comfortable, and there’s history in the state to make people feel comfortable. I think our state has done a pretty good job overall compared to the rest of the nation.

What advice would you give to someone who is voting by mail for the first time? What are the pitfalls to avoid in filling out your ballot?

You need to read the instructions very carefully, word by word. There’s a danger of losing your ballot simply because you don’t follow instructions. So my first advice is just be patient and follow instructions for where to put the ballot, whether to put it face up or face down, where to sign—all those things. It’s certainly a bad experience if your first ballot is invalidated for one reason or another.

Just like in a regular election, you need to study before voting: evaluate candidates’ positions and get a piece of paper to keep track of the major offices that you are very concerned with. It’s a presidential election year, but there are many, many offices below that. So you need to do some research before you use a mail-in ballot. The more research you do, the less pressure you will have. Once you do all the prep work, you have the ballot in front of you. Use a pen that is strong enough and good enough for people to recognize where you check your box.

Put the ballot in the right position, seal it, sign it, everything as required. And finally, don’t forget, you need to mail it out! Don’t delay so much that it will be postmarked after the deadline. You want to calculate enough time before you cast your vote and make sure you put that on your calendar.

Those of us on the Wasatch Front are spoiled by our access to postal service, but that’s not true for all Utahns in every corner of our state. There are places where you can drop off a ballot. If you’re not sure about that, you can go to the post office. There are multiple ways that you can get assurance that your ballots will be counted eventually. So do your due diligence as a good citizen.

For new voters: everybody’s nervous at the beginning. It’s very common to feel that way, especially in a pandemic. Government usually does a good job and counts our vote. So budget your time wisely and don’t delay until it’s too late. That’s my advice.

Record numbers of people have already voted early or voted by mail. How do you think that this election is going to change the way that we vote in the future? 

Oh, great question. For one thing, political scientists will be busy. We’ll collect a lot of data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in terms of the percentage of people who cast their vote in mail-in form versus others. And we’ll try to find whether or not there were a significant number of ballots that were invalidated for one reason or another. We’ll try to code different forms of invalidation, where the signature was an issue, or a late arrival was the issue.

I’m thinking that there will be more debate about issues concerning special circumstances like a pandemic, such as when the country is so affected by this national emergency, whether mail-in voting is the primary way to go. If so, how do we handle that? Shall we move the counting of the ballots as early as possible? Maryland and some other states started to count way before Election Day. All these issues have not been completely sorted out, and we need to see how this election handles that.