Ballot printing error in Sanpete County creates confusion

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This July file photo shows mail-in ballots being counted at the Salt Lake County Government Center. Thousands of mail-in ballots sent to Sanpete County voters this week lacked a signature line due to a misprint with the printing company.

Sanpete County Clerk Sandy Neill didn’t know there was a problem with the more than 13,000 mail-in ballots sent to voters in her county this week until they had already arrived in mailboxes.

“Tuesday morning is when the first voter called and said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ” Neill said. “We had them open the flap, and they told us it was blank.”

Envelopes for mail-in ballots in Utah have a perforated area where voters typically must sign for their ballot to be counted. When ballots are returned to a clerk’s office, signatures on the envelope are compared to voters' signatures on file in a digital database to ensure the two match.

Neill initially wondered if the missing signature line on the first caller’s envelope was an outlier, but she didn’t have to wonder for long. “When the next 4,000 calls came in," she said, “we realized we had a problem.”

Due to a printing error with the private company that the county hired to print and mail ballots for the general election, the area inside the perforation — which should have had a brief affidavit, a signature line and a place to write a contact email or phone number in case there is a problem with the signature — was blank.

Fortunately, the other side of the perforation was correctly printed with the voter’s name along with a bar code that allows the clerk’s office to look up the file signature in the database, so the ballots can still be validated.

“If voters sign in the perforated area," Neill said, “that’s perfect.”

Jenny Maurer, a Sanpete County voter from Moroni, said Wednesday that she received her ballot Tuesday.

“There was no signature box,” she said. “There was nothing. I just kept looking over it, looking back and forth on the envelope.”

Maurer, who served in the U.S. Air Force and lived abroad, said she has voted by mail for years and knew that the envelopes needed to be signed, so she went online and found information about the error and how to correctly submit her ballot. But she worries younger voters might not know anything is wrong.

“They might not realize [there’s an error],” she said. "They might not call the county clerk.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened at this particular time with all of the doubts that the presidency has put out about voter fraud to begin with,” Maurer added. “This just contributes to that, unfortunately.”

President Donald Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims about by-mail voting being vulnerable to fraud and mischief.

Neill said her office’s phones were continuing to ring off the hook Wednesday, and she brought on more staff to field voter questions. In addition, Neill said the ballot vendor, the California-based company Integrated Voting Systems (IVS), mailed out postcards to every voter explaining the error and giving them an opportunity to sign the postcard instead of the envelope.

(Contacted by phone Wednesday, an IVS spokesperson said the company does not comment on ongoing elections.)

If voters have already returned their ballot without a signature, they can sign the postcard instead, Neill said. “They can sign that and drop it in drop boxes; they can mail it; they can bring it in.”

Sanpete is a universal vote-by-mail county, and Neill said the issue affected the vast majority of ballots. The clerk’s office is mailing some 400 ballots to residents who registered to vote in the past several weeks and those will have a correctly printed envelope.

“Really, truly this will not affect votes being counted,” Neill said. “We will follow through and do everything under our power. Especially ... where the mistake could have been ours, we’re going to let those go. ... We will make sure that we contact the voters and get it taken care of.”

Utah is one of five states in the country that conducted the vast majority of its elections by mail before the coronavirus pandemic. Clerks' offices enter into contracts with a wide range of private vendors with little oversight or regulation from the state, and the Sanpete misprint is not the first ballot printing issue to complicate a Utah election.

For the primary election in June, registered Republicans in Duchesne County voters received Democratic ballots and vice versa. And Garfield County has had errors with three recent elections, including one case in which ballots did not arrive until just before Election Day. In most of those cases, the clerks' offices and vendors blamed each other for the errors.

State Elections Director Justin Lee had no comment on the problem beyond what the clerk said.

The state’s highest election official, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is currently running as the Republican candidate for Utah governor, is a resident of Sanpete County, often commuting daily to Salt Lake City.

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.