My ballot arrived in my mailbox Wednesday and I was probably more excited than Steve Martin in “The Jerk” when the new phone books arrived.
Things are going to start happening to me now.
If you haven’t got yours, it should come in the next day or two.
But with all the attention to voting — between coronavirus disruption and misinformation and in some cases outright lies about the security of voting by mail — I thought it would be good to explore some of the issues surrounding this election.
So I sat down with two people who know more than pretty much anyone about running elections in Utah — Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen and the director of elections in the lieutenant governor’s office, Justin Lee.
Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space and clarity. The full exchange is available at sltrib.com.
Gehrke: So people are getting their ballots in the mail now, walk me through what voters need to do to make sure their vote is counted.
Swensen: Most importantly, they have to sign the affidavit on their return ballot envelope. If they don’t sign that, we have to send them a letter telling them they didn’t sign it — we call it a cure letter. So that’s the most important thing. They need to use the envelope that has their name on it. They don’t want to switch ballots with someone else in their household. … We have had questions about if they don’t use their security sleeve does their ballot still count? Yes it does. … And I got a question this morning about whether they have to vote in every contest … No, they can vote in whichever contest they want and we count the ones where they do.
Gehrke: When do voters need to get their ballots in and would you recommend they get them in early regardless?
Lee: Yes, I would recommend they get them in early for a couple reasons. One, then the campaigns take you off the list and you don’t get all the mailers. That’s a pretty big relief. … Two, the more ballots we get early, the more election results we’ll have on election night. … But the reason [mailing ballots early] is not as big a deal in Utah as it is in other states is that, as long as the ballot is postmarked no later than the day before Election Day, it can be received up through the day before the canvass, the official certification of ballots … so really there are 13 days after Election Day for that ballot to be received.
Gehrke: Are you expecting a lot of day-of voting this year?
Swensen: I’m afraid we may experience more than we prefer, because the vote centers are really meant for individuals who didn’t receive a ballot. In the midst of this pandemic, that is so important because we’re having to socially distance the poll workers, the voting machines and the voters in ine. So if we have 20 voters in line, we’re going to see a line 120 feet long … We are really asking people to use their by-mail ballot so we don’t have those long lines occur.
Gehrke: So we’ve filled our ballots, sent them off and they arrive at the clerk’s office. Walk us through the precautions you take to verify the authenticity of the ballot, to make sure there’s not voter fraud.
Swensen: When the ballots come back they have a unique ID number on the ballot envelope and that is assigned to each active voter, so ballots are not sent out without an active voter being assigned to that ballot. When they come back, the ballots are scanned in, that bar code is attributed to that voter having returned their ballot … then we go through the process of removing the tab [covering the signature] and then they’re sent back through the scanning equipment again and a picture is taken of the signature on the affidavit envelope and the equipment we have verifies about 50% of the signatures with the software. … The ones that can’t be verified by the software are done manually. … If it doesn’t match at that point we have other passes where we go into documents that we have on file for that voter or can look at signatures on past registration forms. … If it still doesn’t match we send the voter a cure letter to let them know there’s an issue with their signature and they can resolve that by responding to the cure letter.
Gehrke: We’ve done vote-by-mail for several cycles. Do we see voter fraud in mail-in elections more than we do in traditional elections?
Lee: We really don’t see any increase in — we should say attempted — voter fraud in by-mail elections. There are a couple things to consider. Even before counties were running elections by mail we had a significant number of people voting by mail. … Where we see any attempts at fraud it’s from similar groups, it’s from people voting for a student who’s away at college and has their address at home or a spouse voting for a spouse or partner, and they’ll sign the envelope on behalf of that other person and send it in and we know that happens because the counties are really good at catching this. And they’ll reach out to the voter and let them know, “Hey, you can’t do that. That’s technically a felony.” … So we’re not seeing any significant kind of voter fraud.
Gehrke: Do we still have time to register to vote?
Swensen: Yes, until 5 o’clock on Friday, Oct. 23, and that is in order for them to receive a ballot in the mail. There is still same-day registration at the voting centers, but that’s not an efficient way for people to register so we don’t want them to wait.
Gehrke: Justin, tell us a little about how you can track your ballot.
Lee: Sure. You can go to vote.utah.gov and put in your information and it will tell you where your ballot is in the process, if it’s been mailed to you, if the county clerk has received it once you’ve sent it back in, and then eventually it will tell you if it’s been counted.
Gehrke: This is a lengthy process these ballots go through. What should we expect on election night? Will we have half the results? A third of the results?
Lee: We generally have about 75% of the results on election night, sometimes more and that depends on how many send in their ballots early, how many people drop them off on Election Day. … That being said, if it’s a close race, it’s going to take perhaps two weeks to get all those results.
So there’s your checklist from the experts: Do your homework, make sure to sign your ballot, get it in the mail or a dropbox early to minimize the coronavirus risk and give you a chance to fix any problems should they arise.
But whatever you do, just make sure you vote, because this election is too important to be stuck on the sidelines.