SUNSET — Sunset officials voted this week to switch to a mail-only ballot system for the city's municipal elections later this year.
Sunset joins Duchesne County and its neighbor city Syracuse, which have already made the switch.
The Sunset City Council arrived at the decision in a narrow 3-2 vote, arguing that mailed-in ballots will increase voter turnout in the town of just more than 5,000 people. Sunset was initially approached by Davis County about changing its voting system to test the new method’s effectiveness.
“It’s two-fold. It will increase voter turnout, and let’s face it — nobody likes to stand in line for an hour and a half,” said Sunset Mayor Chad Bangerter. “If you’re at home on Election Day, you’re probably fine either way, but for the people who are coming back from work just before the polls close, it’s a problem.”
Last year, Duchesne County became the first in the state to eliminate all of its polling places on Election Day, going exclusively to mail-in voting for all elections. As a result, voter turnout there skyrocketed from 58 percent in 2008 to 82 percent in 2012.
Sunset City Councilman Ryan Furniss, however, isn’t happy about his city switching voting systems. He believes a mail-only ballot system will increase chances for voting improprieties and will prove to be impractical.
“The potential for voter fraud is just too large. There are just too many chances for error with this. Anyone could fill (the ballots) out,” Furniss told the Deseret News. “I’m just uneasy about it. I don’t want our city to be the guinea pig.”
Furniss also said the city is not considering the financial or logistical implications carefully enough.
“We took 10 or 15 minutes, then took a vote,” Furniss said. “I’m shocked at how quickly it was adopted without much consideration or serious dialogue.”
Bangerter, however, said the city did its research. He pointed out that in Oregon and Washington, where all-by-mail voting is statewide for all elections, voting fraud isn’t any higher than in the rest of the United States.
“It’s been successful elsewhere. I’m not worried,” the mayor said. “When I saw that it hasn’t been a problem in other cities and states, I thought it was a good idea.”
After one year, the Sunset City Council will analyze voter turnout and decide whether the city should will keep the mail-only voting system and expand it to county, state and federal elections.
Davis County officials offered every city within its boundaries an opportunity to participate in all-mail voting, but so far only Sunset and Syracuse have accepted. Davis County Election Director Pat Beckstead said he believes the reason for most cities’ hesitancy is the significantly increased operating costs.
“It is more expensive than using voting stations,” Beckstead said. “The postage and the (manual) effort of verifying signatures adds up. You also have to print out every ballot whether it ends up being used or not.”
Syracuse switched to a mail-only system without controversy in February. Currently, Syracuse is set to try the new method for one election cycle, but Mayor Jamie Nagle would like the program to succeed and become permanent. She said voters in Davis County particularly have trouble with the traditional voting system.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that (mail-only voting) will have a positive effect on turnout. Typically we have very little. Part of that is that a major portion of the population leaves the county to go to work during the day, which makes it hard for them to make it physically to the polls before they close.”
The Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Election Office is currently studying the feasibility of transitioning all of Utah to a mail-only election system. A committee will study the ramifications as early as this fall, but it would be at least 2015 before such a change could be made, according to Mark Thomas, state director of elections.
"(All-by-mail voting) may be the a direction the state wants to go, but it would take a while to put an appropriate bill together,” Thomas said. “It would likely be hundreds of pages because of all the policies that would need to be considered and voter fraud will be at the top of the list of the lieutenant governor’s concerns.”