Garfield County residents say their votes are being suppressed by clerk’s registration hurdles

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "It was deeply frustrating and upsetting," said Molly Benson on August, 26, 2020, recalling the hassles of registering to vote in Garfield County in 2018, even after her mother Tina Karlsson, left, warned her that it was going to be challenging. Karlsson faced roadblocks while registering in 2009 after she moved back to the county to live full-time in a house she bought in the early 1990s.

Garfield County • Molly Benson heard that it wouldn’t be easy to register to vote in Utah’s Garfield County, so she did her research before making the 100-mile, two-hour trip from her home in Boulder to the county seat in Panguitch.

Benson looked up the requirements for voters registering for the first time in the state: a Utah driver license number, a Utah identification number or the last four digits of a Social Security number.

It was June 2018, and Benson, who had just finished her second year of teaching at Boulder Elementary School, was going to be in Panguitch for a professional development training. She didn’t have a Utah-issued ID so she was planning to register using the last four digits of her Social Security number.

As a U.S. citizen over age 18 who had lived in Utah for more than 30 days immediately before the next election, she met the eligibility requirements according to state code. But to be safe, she gathered her passport and four pieces of mail addressed to her — two showing her post office box and two showing her physical address.

When Benson arrived at the clerk’s office, however, her voter registration form was rejected. The deputy clerk who was working that day told Benson that she needed a Utah driver license and two pieces of official mail such as a bank statement or utility bill to prove her residency. Benson protested that she had just signed on for a third year with the school district, but the deputy clerk declined to take her form.

She left the office that day unregistered.

“It was deeply frustrating and upsetting — it was really upsetting,” Benson recalled. “I felt terrible. I went back to my professional development [class], and I had been crying. Everyone else was happy-go-lucky at lunch, and I felt really crappy. … I wanted to vote in the place I was living, which is my right as a citizen.”

A few weeks later, Benson received a call from the deputy clerk who said she had been in touch with the school district. When Benson had applied two years earlier, she used a Seattle address, and the clerk’s office had again rejected her registration form based on that information.

Benson contacted several politically savvy Boulder residents who took her testimony and sent it to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s office, which oversees elections in Utah. The state’s response, which was shared with Garfield County Clerk Camille Moore, was unequivocal.

“First-time registrants are not required to provide ID when they register to vote,” a representative for the lieutenant governor wrote in a June 20, 2018, email that was reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune. “Proof of residency is also not required to register to vote. … If an individual fills out the required information on a registration form and is eligible to register, the county clerk must process it.”

Benson returned to the clerk’s office in August 2018, this time filming the encounter, and her form was accepted.

“Then I was registered to vote,” Benson laughed. “It only took, you know, the lieutenant governor to give somebody a slap on the hand.”

‘Lieutenant governor on speed dial’

In Garfield County, Benson’s story is far from unique. Her mother, Tina Karlsson, faced roadblocks while registering in 2009 after she moved back to the county to live full time in a house she bought in the early 1990s. And county residents have had similar experiences to Benson as recently as July.

“Over the course of the last year, we’ve … uncovered upwards of 30 stories of people in Garfield County, and specifically Boulder Town, who have encountered significant barriers to registering to vote,” said Madeline McGill, communications director for the Rural Utah Project, an advocacy group that leads voter registration drives across the state.

McGill said that her organization has known there was an issue in the area since 2018. That’s when sheriff’s deputies with leashed dogs were dispatched to staff housing for the Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder to question employees about upward of a dozen people registered to the address of a nine-bedroom house.

“But we didn’t understand — and many people in Boulder didn’t even fully understand — the extent of the issue until we started to document it,” McGill said. “It seems like three out of five people we talked to in Boulder Town have a similar story of having to face some unreasonable barrier when registering to vote.”

The 250-person town of Boulder is in one of the few county precincts that didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in 2016, leading some residents to believe that the area is being targeted.

McGill said most of the complaints the Rural Utah Project has received came from voters in Boulder — which has a younger, more transient workforce than elsewhere in the county — but both registered Republicans and registered Democrats had their forms rejected. Several similar cases were also documented in Escalante and Bryce Canyon City.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Garfield County Clerk Camille Moore in her office at the county courthouse, August, 26, 2020. Moore has served as county clerk since 1995.

Moore, who has served as clerk since 1995, told The Tribune that she has requested additional information from first-time voters in the past not to keep people from voting but to ensure that Garfield County is their primary residence. Without the precautions, Moore said, seasonal workers and recent move-ins might sway local elections, which can come down to just a few dozen votes in rural areas.

“I want everybody to be able to vote,” Moore said, “but I don’t want people that really don’t care to come in and affect our really local [elections] — our city and our school district and those kinds of things — that if you’re here for four months, you don’t really care about.”

Garfield County is home to Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (now comprised of three units), and it sees an annual influx of seasonal workers. For much of her first two decades in office, Moore asked people registering to vote for a Utah driver license as a way to determine if the county was their primary residence. Conversely, Moore said she encourages people who grew up in the county to keep voting there by absentee ballot when they move away for school or work, at least until they’re settled permanently elsewhere.

In past years, when someone showed up with an out-of-state driver license, Moore would ask them to apply for a Utah license — which is required under state law if they plan to operate a motor vehicle and have been in Utah for six months — before processing their form.

“I would say to them, ‘If this really isn’t your primary residence and you’re going home, that’s where you should be voting,’” Moore said. “‘If you’re going to stay here, get your Utah driver’s license, come back and we’ll get you registered to vote.’”

Moore said she pursued the practice for most of her 2½ decades in office. “I didn’t get any pushback. I really didn’t. ... But the last however many years — and it’s gotten worse the last few years — I can’t ask them to do that anymore.

“I have some people in the county,” she said, “that have the lieutenant governor’s office on speed dial.”

Cox’s office has contacted Moore at least four times since 2018 to remind her of state and federal voting laws, including as recently as Sept. 1.

“Generally speaking, under state law, when a county clerk receives a voter registration form, it’s their duty to process that form and register the voter,” said Justin Lee, the lieutenant governor’s director of elections. “The voter signs an affidavit stating that the information is true and accurate on that voter registration form.”

Lee added that there are sections of code that allow an individual to challenge a specific voter’s eligibility. “If a county clerk is going to challenge someone’s residency, they need to follow very specifically what is in the code to do that. It shouldn’t be something that’s ad hoc or even [happening on a] regular [basis]. It should come from a very specific concern and following a very specific code section.”

‘So many hurdles’

Despite the repeated reminders from the state, Moore’s office has continued this year to request documents not required by law, and it has reviewed letters from employers and landlords supporting voters’ residency claims.

In March, the Rural Utah Project submitted 10 voter registration forms and all the applicants received letters from Moore stating the forms were “missing important information.” The letters went on to request that voters provide “proof of your identification and residency” without stating what documents would qualify.

A similar round of letters was sent to would-be voters in June, and The Tribune reviewed an audio recording of a county resident attempting to register to vote in-person with his Social Security number in July and being denied.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kara Canlas said she isn't sure if her primary ballot for the June 30 Utah governor's race was counted, August 27, 2020. Canlas, who lives and works in Boulder, received a letter before and after her vote from the clerk's office requesting additional documents to prove her residency in Garfield.

Kara Canlas, who works on a farm in Boulder, received two letters from Moore requesting additional documents after she registered to vote in the county for the first time this spring. Canlas said she moved to Boulder early this year with the intention of staying indefinitely and got her Utah driver license (which required making time for a more than four-hour trip to the closest licensing office) shortly after sending in her voter registration form.

With the help of organizers at the Rural Utah Project, Canlas was able to navigate the clerk’s letters and believes she is now on the voter rolls. But she worries the challenges could dissuade other voters.

“It seems kind of innocuous. If you’re not as aware of your rights, you are like, ’Oh yeah, sure, they just need more proof or something,’” Canlas said, adding that she isn’t sure if her primary ballot for the Utah governor’s race was counted because she received a letter requesting the documents before and after the primary election.

Several eligible voters in Boulder said they started the registration process but, due to time or financial constraints, gave up when they were asked to provide additional information. A post office box, which the clerk’s office has required in past elections to vote by mail, costs $65, and there was a shortage of post office boxes several years ago.

One Boulder resident has missed the deadline for postmarking ballots in two recent elections and has had to drive her ballot to the nearest drop box in Panguitch, according to Peg Smith, who contributes to The Insider, a local newspaper. And distribution of mail-in ballots have been delayed in at least three recent elections due to problems with the private companies hired to print and mail ballots for the county.

“There are just so many little hurdles, and if people aren’t willing to jump through all of them, they just are not guaranteed they’re even going to end up with a ballot,” Smith said.

“We see — not just in Garfield County but everywhere — that when you lose people, especially young people, at the point of voter registration, those folks never have the opportunity to become voters and oftentimes will go cycles without participating,” said McGill of the Rural Utah Project. “The easier that we can make it for people to register, the easier that we can make it for people to participate broadly.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Over the course of the last year, we've uncovered stories of people in Garfield County and specifically Boulder Town who have encountered significant barriers to registering to vote," said Madeline McGill, communications director for the Rural Utah Project, an advocacy group which leads voter registration drives across the state, August 27, 2020.

Election approaching

Lee, the state’s director of elections, said the lieutenant governor’s office does not have the authority to penalize county clerks who fail to follow the law, nor to take over clerks’ election duties. If a clerk were to break laws governing elections, he said, it would need to be proved in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah will be sending poll monitors to Garfield County and other Utah counties in the lead-up to the November election, said Niki Venugopal, the organization’s voting rights coordinator. The group is also reviewing options for responding to alleged instances of voter suppression in Garfield County.

“We are very concerned by this evidence that we’ve seen of persistent and calculated efforts by the clerk to suppress voter registration over a very lengthy timespan,” Venugopal said.

When a clerk works outside official procedures mandated by state and federal law for processing voter registration forms and verifying information, Venugopal said, it opens an “opportunity for implicit bias to come into play.”

“Right now we’re also urging voters to call the election protection hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE if they experience any issues; challenges to voting; harassment while trying to vote or register; or if they feel their rights have been violated,” she said.

For her part, Moore said she doesn’t want to stop anyone from voting, but she would like to see state law changed to give clerks more authority to identify voters’ primary residences.

“I wish that the state would come out with some kind of a regulation that said you have to prove your primary residence: where you file your taxes and [get] your cars licensed and your driver’s license is,” she said. “That just makes sense to me.”

But Moore said in this election her office will be registering voters who meet the minimum state requirements, regardless of her opinions on their residence.

“I’ve had people come in that I really felt like were not legitimate,” Moore said, “and there’s not one thing I can do about it.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about southern Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.