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Lessons Other States Might Learn From Utah's Success With Mail-In Ballots

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is one of the most contentious issues of this 2020 election cycle - no, not health care, not taxes, not even the response to the coronavirus. We are talking about the ballot itself, how it is cast. We have heard it over and over. In the midst of a global pandemic, a record number of Americans are likely to cast their vote through the mail. Many already have. President Trump and his supporters have been attacking mail-in voting for months, both in the press and in the courts. There are some Republicans who defend the practice of mail-in voting, and we're going to hear from one of them now.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, welcome. Good to have you with us.

SPENCER COX: It's great to be with you, Mary Louise. Thank you.

KELLY: So you oversee elections in your state. I wonder if you would walk me just real briefly, two or three sentences, through how you make mail-in voting work in your state?

COX: Sure. Well, we make it work by being very transparent, and that is that we have systems in place that assure that the ballot is safe. It allows people to check their ballot. They can get online and find out when the ballot's been sent to them, when their ballot has been received, when their ballot has been counted and posted. And we've spent many, many years on this system, slowly building it out to gain the confidence of the people here in the state of Utah.

KELLY: Yeah. I saw you all use special paper that I couldn't just walk in off the street and buy in a store. Every ballot has an individual ID number printed on it and so forth. You mentioned you all have been at this for a while. In a normal year, in normal times, what percentage of votes in Utah get cast by mail?

COX: Well, almost all of them. So as of 2018, about 90% of votes now are being cast by mail, about 10% on Election Day. We do give that option, although we do mail ballots out to every active voter in the state of Utah, 100% of them. And you're right. Those are the safety procedures. One other I will just add is that we have real people reviewing every signature to make sure that it matches. If it doesn't match, then you get contacted by your county official to let you know, and you need to come in and fix that.

KELLY: So in 2018, you said you were at something like 90% of votes being cast by mail. Did you see widespread fraud?

COX: No, we did not see widespread fraud. In fact, it's kind of funny. The fraud we did see is very unintentional. It tends to often be moms whose kids are at school or whose kids are on missions for their church who get the ballot and talk to them and fill it out for them and send it in. And they get a polite call from the county attorney letting them know that that is fraudulent and illegal and that they could go to jail for that.

KELLY: So I have to ask you, as a Republican elected official, what do you make of the president and his allies insisting over and over that mail-in ballots will lead to fraud, will lead to a rigged election?

COX: Well, what I have to say is it depends on how you run the election. And when I say we've been at this for a long time, we didn't just start overnight sending out ballots to everyone in the state of Utah. This is something that we've done over the course of the last 10 years. We started out in municipal elections, very small, and we moved to a few counties. We allowed people to opt in, and we slowly built it out with all of these procedures in place. We remove people. We go over the death certificates every month and remove people who are - who have passed away. We get reports from the post office every month letting us know that people have moved.

And so we've done a really good job of making sure that the system works and that it's accountable to the people. And so I can - you know, I can't speak for other states. I don't know that they're doing those same things. It would be very hard. I'm really glad I don't have to do this in the course of just a few months. It would be very difficult to pull off.

KELLY: That's a good point, that a lot of other states have not been doing this, at least in such a widespread way, and they're now trying to ramp up really fast in the middle of a pandemic. Let me ask you this. What are you telling voters in Utah in terms of when they're going to know who won Utah?

COX: Yeah, so this is another thing that we've gotten used to in Utah that I really worry about that the rest of the country and other states aren't used to. We know very frequently in close races, we will not have a winner on election night. In fact, I just ran in a primary - the gubernatorial primary. And we didn't have a winner for...

KELLY: Yes, you're running for governor, we should mention.

COX: I am running for governor. It took us five days to find out who won that race. And that's not uncommon here. But it is uncommon. We're used to having a call by midnight, you know?

KELLY: Right.

COX: And that really worries me across the nation.

KELLY: All right. That is Spencer Cox, currently the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Utah. As you heard there, he's on the ballot, running for governor in November.

Thanks so much for your time.

COX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.