SALT LAKE CITY — City officials learned that vote-by-mail ballots may be effective in raising voter participation after sending out an experimental opinion poll to residents.
Near the beginning of September, voters in Salt Lake City received a mail-in ballot that needed to be returned by Sept. 26.
Of 80,827 registered voters, 19,607 — or 24 percent — responded. It was the highest voter participation in Utah's capital city since 2007.
"The voter participation rate in this mail-only ballot question, relative to recent municipal election voter rates, was absolutely outstanding," said Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Ralph Becker. "These numbers reflect something that is widely recognized, namely that vote-by-mail is the most effective way to get people voting."
The opinion poll was related to the efforts of a group called Move to Amend, which is pushing for changes to the Constitution. The amendments would exempt corporations from benefitting from constitutional rights and clarify that money is not speech and does not qualify for free speech consideration.
Move to Amend is one of the groups opposed to the ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that stated that limiting contribution amounts from companies would result in restricting free speech.
The poll contained questions reflecting Move to Amend's positions, with 88 percent of respondents in favor of the group's ideas.
"Boy, a lot of people in Salt Lake City feel strongly that Citizens United was the wrong decision," City Councilman Luke Garrott said.
In 2012, Move to Amend gathered signatures from roughly 15 percent of voters in support of gauging public interest behind the previously mentioned amendments to the Constitution — 5 percent more than are required by state law to get a measure on the ballot.
However, the Salt Lake City recorder prevented the issue from appearing on the ballot because votes in the affirmative would not result in a law.
The group then took the city to court, and the Utah Supreme Court ruled in Salt Lake City's favor. Since that time, the City Council has worked with Move to Amend to find other means of discerning public opinion on the issue.
In September, the city created an ordinance that allows residents to collect public opinions via mail-in ballot.
In the future, any person or group that is able to gather the support of 10 percent of registered voters can qualify for a city-wide opinion poll, Garrott said.
It cost $98,000 to administer the poll, a price tag with with at least one City Council member takes issue.
Councilman Carlton Christensen said he did not support the council spending taxpayer money on something that will not result in any action by the city and is ultimately a federal concern.
Christensen noted that the "against" argument was written by someone who is affiliated with Move to Amend, making it "not exactly the most highly motivated counterpoint." The council will need to determine how to more fairly represent issues and cut costs with future opinion polls, he said.
In a related case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case deals with limits on individual campaign contributions.
Contributing: Richard Piatt