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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Voting Rights (Disappointment) on the Hill

23 March 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Well, you can’t win them all. Sometimes, it can even feel like you LOST them all.LegisUpdateBlog

Voting rights for Utahns didn’t fare that well at the Utah State Legislature this year, as several key proposals that would have expanded voter access failed to clear the finish line.

Perhaps most disappointing for our staff was watching Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D-Salt Lake)’s HB285, “Voter Registration Amendments,” stall during the 2017 session. By 2016, after years of hard work by Rep. Chavez-Houck, county clerks and voting advocates, the vast majority of Utahns were able to register to vote and cast their vote on Election Day - and this bill would have allowed that access to continue. 

Election Day Registration came to Utah in 2014 as part of a pilot program made possible by legislation sponsored by Rep. Chavez-Houck. Over the course of the three-year pilot, which concluded at the end of 2016, eight counties – covering some 70% of the state population - joined in the experiment. Voters in these counties were able to register to vote on Election Day, then cast a provisional ballot and have it counted when voter eligibility was verified. The pilot program ensured that thousands of votes were counted that might be otherwise tossed.

However, professed concerns about lines at voting places (unfairly attributed to the Election Day Registration process, rather than strong turnout and changes to available polling places) as well as partisan fears about the impacts of increased voter turnout, were sufficient to keep the Utah legislature from authorizing a continuation of the program. The bill had one committee hearing, where it died on a 3 to 5 vote.

Rep. Chavez-Houck wrote an excellent Op-Ed about her bill, when it became apparent that HB285 would not be moving forward. We couldn’t agree with her more when she said, “We need to do all we can to encourage voters to participate, including solving the problem of lines, but eradication of a program that expands voter registration is not the solution.”  

We worked on several other bills that we feel would have removed barriers to voting, and those proposals also met resistance.

Rep. Stephen Handy (R-Layton) introduced HB159, “Amendments to Voter Registration,” which would have changed how Utahns can register to vote when they are renewing their drivers’ licenses. Currently, people who are applying for a driver’s license can “opt-in” to register to vote. HB159 would have made the voter registration automatic when a person applies for a driver’s license, with an option to “opt-out” if registration was not necessary or appropriate.

An automatic registration would likely have boosted voter registration throughout the state, and we were very hopeful about its prospects! HB159 made it nearly all the way through the legislative process, but was still waiting for a final vote on the Senate floor when the session ended at midnight on March 9.

Rep. Brad Daw (R-Orem) introduced HB230, “Election Revisions,” which proposed to make several technical changes to the election process – and included a requirement that counties using vote-by-mail ballots must include paid postage on those ballots. Rep. Daw included this provision in his legislation in response to complaints by voting advocates, as well as voters in several counties, during the 2016 election.

This part of the bill drew a lot of criticism from legislators, who argued, essentially, that if putting a stamp on an envelope stood in the way of someone voting, maybe that person wasn’t that serious about voting.  Our concerns - about this being a barrier to voting for senior citizens, low-income individuals and people with disabilities - were not sufficient to overcome their objections. The postage-paid provision was removed from the bill, which then moved successfully through the process and is currently awaiting action from the Governor.

Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right upon which all our civil liberties rest. That makes it particularly hard when proposals that would boost voter access and voter turnout are defeated in our legislature. But the ACLU of Utah is committed to working to protect and expand Americansʼ freedom to vote, and we intend to promote all aspects of participatory democracy in our state!