President Donald Trump has spent months trying to convince Americans that universal mail-in voting would be a disaster for democracy. It is “dangerous,” he says, potentially “catastrophic”—an “embarrassment” that would “make our country the laughingstock of the world.” Just this week, in his speech kicking off the Republican National Convention, Trump called voting by mail “the greatest scam in the history of politics.”
But while the president works to cast mail-in voting as a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election, Utah—one of the most conservative states in the country—has been voting by mail for years. And Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who oversees elections in the state, says the system has been an unqualified success. Turnout is up, the practice has bipartisan support, and there has been none of the widespread cheating that Trump warns about: “We have seen very, very little fraud,” Cox says.
Of course, the greatest barrier to implementing a system like Utah’s may not be fraud, but convincing the electorate that it’s safe and reliable. As the coronavirus pandemic has turned in-person voting into a potential public-health hazard, states across the country are expanding access to mail-in voting for the 2020 election.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Cox—who recently won the Republican gubernatorial primary—about Utah’s vote-by-mail experience, best practices for other states to follow, and his worst fears for Election Night. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
McKay Coppins: President Trump has been pretty hostile toward universal mail-in voting. Utah has been doing this for a while—do you share his concerns?
Spencer Cox: Unfortunately, like everything else in politics today, this is very nuanced, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for nuance in the conversation about it. What I can tell you in Utah is that vote-by-mail has been incredibly successful here. It has helped increase voter turnout. It also leads, I believe, to a more informed electorate. It gives people an opportunity to study the ballot ahead of time, so they know who they’re voting for. We have seen very, very little fraud, and virtually no intentional fraud. The reason for that is because we were very methodical and very careful about the way we started this.
I can assure the people of Utah that, yes, the vote is secure and you have nothing to worry about, and this is a very positive thing. I can also say some of those concerns [nationally] are valid, and if we had to set this up in a matter of a few weeks, that would be very difficult—and very difficult for people to swallow. That’s why we were so cautious in the way we rolled it out.
Coppins: What precautions did Utah take to ensure that it would run so smoothly, and that everybody was on board?
Cox: We did it in just a few municipalities at first, and counties could opt in. We also had extreme oversight. Those security measures are really important, including only sending ballots out to active voters. The Post Office gives us lists of people who have changed addresses and people who have passed away [so that they don’t get ballots sent to them mistakenly]. We have real people looking at every single signature on every ballot that comes in [to make sure they match the voter’s signature]. And if those ballots are rejected because a signature doesn’t match, we actually reach out to the voter and give them an opportunity to cure that, to resubmit their ballot. So it’s a very labor-intensive practice.
Done correctly, it’s amazing. Done poorly, it can call into question even the potential validity of the election.
Coppins: It also takes much longer to count the votes. You recently experienced this with your own race, right?
Cox: The election was on a Tuesday, and I believe the race was called on Monday of the next week. That’s very common. It’s just a paradigm shift that people have had to get used to.
Here, we mail ballots out approximately three weeks before the election. About a third of people mail it back the day they get it, a third do it in the interim period, and a third do it at the very last minute. With my race, I told my people, ‘We are not going to know who won this on Election Night.’”
Coppins: Do you think that paradigm shift has happened in the rest of the country?
Cox: It’s one of the things that deeply concerns me about the presidential election. Other than the 2000 recount, people have gotten used to knowing who won the race when they go to bed. The way conspiracy theories spread on social media, I’m worried that people will end up questioning the legitimacy of the election if it takes time to count those ballots.
Coppins: Any tips for voters who are preparing to vote by mail for the first time this year?
Cox: Make sure you know when the ballot needs to be returned, and what that means. It’s different in every state. In some states, they have to have it in hand on Election Day, so you need to know how long the mail takes. In other states, it has to be postmarked by a certain day. We encourage people to mail their ballots in as early as possible.