Robert Gehrke: We need our county clerks to help Utahns vote, not stand in their way

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s not supposed to be hard to exercise our fundamental American rights.

Imagine if you had to drive hours, fill out a government form and provide various types of identification in order to get permission to go to church or to hold a protest or to legally buy a gun — then were denied the ability to do so.

That’s just not how we do things. Except, apparently, if you live in Garfield County and you want to vote.

My colleague Zak Podmore wrote over the weekend about a slew of complaints about the obstacles the Garfield County clerk places in front of new residents who want to get registered so they can vote in November.

Take the case of Molly Benson, who did the research to make sure she had all the requisite information (more than she needed, in fact) drove the two hours from Boulder to Panguitch, and then had the deputy clerk refuse to take her registration because she didn’t have a state-issued identification, which is not required.

The second time she tried, she was rejected again, because the deputy clerk had contacted the school district where she worked and the address on file was the Seattle address where she lived when she applied for the job.

Clearly, Benson was commuting from Seattle to Boulder every day to teach and trying to scam the election system.

Eventually the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which oversees state elections, wrote a letter to Garfield County notifying the clerk that people registering to vote do not need a state identification and Benson should be allowed to register.

The Rural Utah Project, which runs voter outreach efforts in Garfield, Kane and San Juan counties, told Podmore that they had identified at least 30 cases where voter registration forms had been improperly rejected.

And maybe 30 doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the last election there were about 2,100 people who voted.

At least four times in the past two years the state elections office has had to get involved and instruct the clerk on, well, how to do her job, and inform her that she was improperly rejecting voter registrations.

It’s hard to believe that after 25 years in office that Garfield County Clerk Camille Moore simply didn’t know the voter registration requirements. She certainly should, and she should make sure her deputies and staff are adequately trained.

And — surprise, surprise — most of the complaints about being hassled and given the runaround are coming from residents in Boulder, a growing island of Democrats in a deeply and devoutly Republican ocean.

This is not the first time a long-simmering tension between the county seat of Panguitch and Boulder has flared.

Two years ago I wrote how sheriffs deputies with dogs showed up at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, owned by Blake Spalding, an outspoken supporter of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They grilled staff as to whether they actually lived where they were registered.

The employees live in a nine-bedroom home that once belonged to some of the town’s polygamists and in nearby trailers. Spalding said deputies told the employees they had to live at the location at least six months to be eligible to vote, even though the law says 30 days.

At the time, I was told the county had received a complaint, so I filed an open records request to find out who had complained and was subsequently told there were no complaints. The whole thing had been initiated by county officials, singling out the area’s outspoken liberal. And, really, what purpose does it serve to bring police dogs in that situation except to intimidate?

We’ve seen election hijinks in other rural counties, too, perhaps most notably in San Juan County, where the county was forced through a lawsuit to provide language assistance to Navajo voters, the clerk admitted to placing prohibited electioneering material at polling places, and had previously backdated documents to try to disqualify Democratic commission candidate Willie Grayeyes from the ballot.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed the 29 county clerks' websites and found many of them contained false or misleading information about elections — or no information at all.

This is not the way any of this should work. These clerks are public servants entrusted with a near-sacred duty to administer our elections in a just and impartial manner. When problems arise, the job is to help overcome obstacles and help members of the public exercise their right, not invent new barriers that violate state law.

When they do that, there needs to be consequences, not just a letter or a lecture from the state elections office. The state should be given the power to fine clerks who repeatedly disregard state law.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, would go one step further.

King tweeted Sunday that, if what the Garfield residents are alleging is true, it is voter suppression and Moore “ought to be charged with violating state and federal law, tried, convicted, stripped of her office, and jailed.”

It’s unlikely that will happen and Moore, who ran unopposed in 2018, isn’t up for election again until 2022. But if she, or any other clerk, is incapable of doing their job, residents need to start taking their votes more seriously than the clerks do, and cast it for someone who respects our most fundamental cornerstone of democracy.