In the lead-up to Utah’s primary election in June, voters in Duchesne County opened their mail-in ballots to a surprise. Every registered Republican in the county received Democratic Party ballots and vice versa.

The mix-up was due to a communication error between the Midwestern ballot printing company the county was contracting with at the time and the county clerk’s office. (The company blamed the clerk and the clerk blamed the printer for the snafu.)

Clerk/Auditor JoAnn Evans said her staff scrambled to mitigate the problem, but since mail-in ballots have to be postmarked before Election Day to be valid, delays can have big impacts on political races, and many voters expressed frustration about the error.

It wasn’t the first time that mistakes by clerks' offices or ballot vendors — the private companies that contract with clerks to print and mail official ballots — had contributed to election headaches in Utah.

Garfield County Clerk/Auditor Camille Moore said three different vendors have caused problems in recent elections in her county, including several years ago when residents of Hatch and Boulder received the other town’s municipal ballots and, in 2018, when a candidate’s name was misprinted. Then, in 2019, voters in the towns of Panguitch and Escalante did not receive their ballots on schedule.

“It was a nightmare. It was a total nightmare,” Moore said of the latter incident. The company had printed and mailed ballots for all of the small towns in Garfield County, but the ballots were never printed for Panguitch and Escalante, the county’s two most populated municipalities. (Moore and a spokesperson for the vendor gave conflicting accounts of the error, each blaming the other party.)

By the time Moore learned the ballots weren’t in the mail, there wasn’t time to get replacements to the whole county. So she leased an electronic voting machine and set up polling places in the two towns for several days before the election. She sent informational cards to every mailbox and dialed voters' phones with a recorded message.

Moore said turnout ended up being higher than the average municipal election, though she acknowledged some people may have missed the opportunity to vote. “It was a disaster,” she said, “but we did everything we could to fix it, and we fixed it the very best that we could.”

The largest vote-by-mail election error in recent years was in Utah County in 2017, when Republican primary ballots were mistakenly sent to 68,000 unaffiliated voters. County officials took responsibility for that screw-up, which necessitated lots of extra ballot sorting and a mass mailing of notification cards.

With more people expected to vote by mail than ever before in November due to the coronavirus pandemic, clerks across the state are working with vendors to reduce the risk that these kinds of mistakes will affect elections.

“I’m in communication with [the printer] probably four or five times a day,” Evans said, adding that she contracted with a new company after the disastrous primary this summer in Duchesne County.

Moore switched to an Arizona-based vendor this year and is so far happy with the results. “If there really was [another] crisis," she said, "I can drive to Phoenix and pick stuff up and and be back within 24 hours if I had to.”

A variety of approaches

There are no certifications from the state or federal government as to which companies can print ballots for county clerks, Moore said, and counties use a variety of vendors for elections.

The Salt Lake Tribune contacted clerks in all of Utah’s 29 counties for this story and received responses from 14. Among responding counties, clerks said they had contracts with seven different ballot vendors, and many noted they had varying processes for getting ballots from the printer to voters' mailboxes.

Most counties said they rely on the printing company to also mail the ballots so that they never pass through the clerk’s office before the election. An exception is Wayne County, which uses Bountiful-based vendor Carr Printing Co. for printing only.

“We mail our own ballots in-house,” said Wayne County Clerk/Auditor Ryan Torgerson. “We’re small enough that it’s easily managed by the staff here. We don’t need the added expense of [hiring a mailing service] because we only have 1,600 registered voters in the county.”

Daggett County, like many rural Utah counties, has relied heavily on mail-in voting for close to a decade.

“A lot of people want to come in and actually vote in person,” said Daggett County Clerk/Treasurer Brian Raymond. “I don’t know why that is. I think it’s because of the press that’s out there about how horrible vote-by-mail is. And it’s not. It’s good. Some people like to have the ballot in their home and look at it and take time to review it and then just mail it in and not have to wait in line.”

Lloyd Carr of Carr Printing, which has been providing election services in Utah since 1902, said his company has contracts with nine counties and special service districts this year and is one of the few companies in the state that provides election services.

Many Utah counties have moved to majority or entirely vote-by-mail systems over the past decade, and that long-running experience is likely to be an advantage in the pandemic election year, Carr said. “It’s not a new process. We’ve been through it for many years here now. And so it’s been perfected, if you will. The weak spots have been found and and we’ve done what we can to try to make those work. We have procedures in place if there are errors.”

Voters are far more likely to encounter problems if they’ve moved and haven’t updated their address, he said, than a widespread printing or mailing-related mishap.

“Every day, thousands of people in Utah move, so there are always people that have wrong registrations,” Carr said.

“The problem that all of us [clerks] have is that people are not updating their addresses,” Raymond said. “They don’t update the address on their [driver] license and then they don’t update it with the post office. So we send out ballots or notifications and they come back and there’s no forwarding address. It’s like they’re lost.”

Voters can check and update their voter registration information, including their address, at voter.utah.gov, or they can submit a paper form to their county clerk. It’s possible to register to vote at a polling place on Election Day, but two forms of identification may be required.

By-mail voters should expect to receive a ballot between Oct. 13 and Oct. 27, and those experiencing delays should contact their county clerk’s office.

Due to potential delays with the U.S. Postal Service, clerks are recommending ballots be filled out, signed and mailed back as quickly as possible to be postmarked by Nov. 2, before Election Day, which falls on Nov. 3.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member 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.

Correction: 5 p.m. 9/28/20 Mail-in ballots in Utah must be postmarked by Nov. 2 in order to be valid. Originally this story gave an incorrect deadline.