Vote-by-mail boosts Weber's sad primary participation

Thursday , July 10, 2014 - 5:55 PM

OGDEN — For any number of reasons, Weber County voters turned out in sorry single digits to cast votes in a largely lackluster June 24 primary.

The final canvass of the vote — approved Tuesday by Weber County commissioners — logged 6.4 percent turnout for limited ballot options — the recorder/surveyor contest was countywide but only open to Republican voters; the state House District 7 race gave North Ogden Republican voters a choice; and the nonpartisan Weber School Board District 3 race was open to all voters on the county’s south end.

“I’m concerned about the turnout, but for the nature of the (countywide) race we had, it was probably typical,” said Noall Knighton, chairman of the Weber County Republican Party.

“It wasn’t a sexy race. It didn’t catch the imagination of anybody,” Knighton said of the recorder/surveyor contest between Leann Kilts, who challenged her boss, incumbent Ernest Rowley, and came away with a win.

Knighton estimated that this year’s closed GOP primary races probably drew about 15 to 16 percent of the party’s registered Weber County voters.

Hindsight showed that vote-by-mail ballots proved to be more cost effective and boosted civic engagement among what appears to be an increasingly harried or apathetic electorate.

A total of 3,910 mail-in ballots were sent to primary voters, either at their request or because they lived in certain precincts where all ballots were vote-by-mail.

Of that total, 1,735 ballots or 42 percent were mailed back to the county and 1,640 were counted.

“I love vote-by-mail and think we should utilize it more. I like access, transparency and people being able to contemplate their choices,” Knighton said.

On that point, Knighton and Weber County Democratic Chairman Ben Pales see eye to eye.

“I’m a huge proponent of vote-by-mail,” Pales said. “You get much higher turnout and it gives people time to fill out their ballots and turn them in.”

Pales attributed low voter turnout to life getting so hectic that many forget about primaries that “aren’t that important to the average person.”

Pales said he would go so far as to make all primary elections completely vote-by-mail. And Knighton suggested moving primaries from June to some other month to boost participation.

Weber County conducted early voting at some polling locations, but only 759 ballots were cast during that time. According to Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch, those early votes averaged out to cost $12.78 per ballot, while the vote-by-mail rang up at about $2.50 per ballot.

“The June primary is mandated by the state Legislature,” Hatch said, pointing out that on even years the primary falls in June and in odd or municipal election years, it falls in August.

And in Weber County in 2013, a special bond election was held in June that was all vote-by-mail, followed by an August primary that was not.

“Why not combine those — but that would take action from the state Legislature,” Hatch said. Like Knighton and Pales, Hatch is also a fan of vote-by-mail primaries.

“I see all sorts of advantages,” Hatch said of the mail-in ballot that serves as a physical reminder to study up on candidates and issues, promotes participation, and for his office, takes some of the guesswork out of voter turnout and election budgeting.

Ogden resident Diana Allison, past president of the state League of Women Voters, attributed low primary turnout to “a certain sense among people that they don’t think their vote matters that much.”

Mail-in ballots could very well be the wave of the future, Allison added, although she knows people who object because they prefer the act of showing up at the polls on election day.

“They like the sense of going some place and showing that they’re participants,” Allison said.

But Pales reminisced about residing in Oregon where every election in his community was totally vote by mail, “and turnout was close to 90 percent.” And municipalities that shift to that mode reap savings in voting machine maintenance costs, he added.

In Davis County, Weber’s neighbor to the south, all registered voters received vote-by-mail ballots for the primary races that pertained to their district or political stripe — and turnout hit 19.3 percent, outpacing voter participation in Weber, Utah and Salt Lake counties.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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