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Utah legislation targets registration drives, mail-in ballots

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Mark Richardson

(Utah News Connection) By almost any measure, Utah's 2020 elections were among the most successful in state history, with record turnout and no evidence of voting irregularities. So, why do some members of the Utah Legislature want to make registering voters a crime?

At least one group, the Rural Utah Project, contended it is because its members did too good a job of getting Utahns to the polls.

House Bill 371, filed last week by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, also seeks to end mail-in ballots and drop-off collection boxes.

T.J. Ellerbeck, executive director of the Rural Utah Project, said the law is aimed straight at political organizers.

"As far as registering people to vote, this bill would make that impossible, legally," Ellerbeck argued. "Because this bill also makes it illegal for an organization like ours, or any random person on the street, to register someone else to vote."

The Rural Utah Project has registered more than 5,600 new voters, many in tribal areas and in San Juan County, which coincidentally is in Lyman's district. When asked about his bill, Lyman told Capitol reporters it is not about finding voter fraud, but to restore "election integrity." The measure drew immediate opposition from Lieutenant Gov. Diedre Henderson, who said it has "no basis in reality."

In 2018, two of the three San Juan County Commission seats were won by members of the Navajo Nation. Ellerbeck stressed if the measure becomes law, almost everything making Utah elections work well would be tossed out.

"We're an all-vote-by-mail state," Ellerbeck pointed out. "In 2020, 94 percent of Utahns voted by mail, and this would eliminate that. It would probably cause our elections to triple in cost, and just generally be pretty catastrophic for voter turnout."

The Rural Utah Project is part of a coalition of organizers, including the ACLU of Utah, Utah Disability Law Center, Utah Muslim Civic League, and the League of Women Voters of Utah. Ellerbeck noted the group was formed to protect their hard-fought electoral gains. 

"Our vote-by-mail system in Utah works, and that's because we know county clerks across the state have figured out a way to implement it cheaply and safely," Ellerbeck emphasized. "And there's no reason to change that system because it is working, and it is already secure."