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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) I Voting booths at St. Anne's School in Salt Lake City are empty Tuesday morning June 24. Only one person checked in between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Other polling stations this morning reported very low turnout for the primary vote.
Salt Lake County primary turnout below 10 percent

County clerk says a third of vote-by-mail ballots were turned in.

First Published Jul 02 2014 05:48 pm • Last Updated Jul 03 2014 07:44 am

The paltry turnout for the June 24 primary election provided more evidence that Salt Lake County is — or should be — headed toward vote-by-mail elections, in the view of longtime County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

"Voting by mail gives people more time to study the issues and study the candidates," she told the County Council on Tuesday during its formal canvass of the primary election results. "And the turnout is greater."

At a glance

Voting by mail

Seven Utah counties went to vote-by-mail during the recent primary election, including Salt Lake County’s neighbor, Davis County.

The number of Davis County voters participating June 24 was the highest in a county primary election in 20 years, said Brian McKenzie, elections manager. Turnout percentage is nearly impossible to calculate because, aside from a couple of school-district races, only Republican contests — which exclude Democrats — were on the ballot.

But McKenzie said it appears that vote-by-mail has made a positive difference in turnout. Some 26,456 voters cast ballots in the recent primary — nearly 3,400 more than in the previous biggest primary turnout for the 2010 runoff between GOP Senate hopefuls Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater.

Other counties adopting vote-by-mail this year were Beaver, Duchesne, Garfield, Grand, San Juan and Sevier.

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Only 9.74 percent of the 435,000 registered voters in Salt Lake County cast ballots in the election, Swensen said. The percentage would have been about half that if the final tally did not include mail-in ballots and those submitted by early voters.

"Out of 90,000 ballots we mailed out, we received 32 percent back," she said. "That’s telling."

Primary participation corroborated evidence from last fall’s municipal elections. Both Cottonwood Heights and West Jordan conducted their elections entirely with mail-in votes and came up with similar responses — three times more votes were cast than in a comparable year of voting at polling places.

Swensen expects more cities to follow suit in the 2015 municipal elections, leaving enough people countywide feeling comfortable with the process that it could be implemented — if the council gives its approval — for all or part of the 2016 general election.

"I know some people like to go to their neighborhood polling place on Election Day, so it will take some time for them to get over that," she added. "But this has been the trend."

Swensen also was pleased with the success of a pilot project to allow people to register to vote on Election Day.

She said 66 people signed up June 24, including 17 senior citizens who moved to Salt Lake County recently and had not been able to register before. Another 30 were under 30 years of age, almost exclusively first-time registrants.

While the primary turnout was "small and disappointing," Swensen said, "It was not the smallest we’ve ever had." Only 6.74 percent of registered voters cast ballots in a pair of 2002 Republican congressional primaries, including one between John Swallow and Tim Bridgewater.

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Swallow won, only to lose in the general election. Last year, a scandal forced him to step down as Utah attorney general.

mikeg@sltrib.com Twitter: @sltribmikeg

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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