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Sherrie Swensen is so eager to reach her destination that she shoves her pink phone case into a gold-tinged elevator door to try to stop it from closing.
No luck. She catches the next one.
It’s Tuesday, election night, and the longtime county clerk is traversing the vast Salt Lake County Government Center to stop briefly in her office before moving on to the next news media interview.
She pauses on the bridge between buildings, pressing her face against the glass to peek at the line of cars snaking up to the ballot drop box outside. Whew. It’s not too long. Those voters will be able to get their ballots in by the 8 p.m. deadline.
Between talking to reporters, she makes a call to check on the lines at polling places across the county. There’s a bit of a delay at Trolley Square, but otherwise this drama of democracy is unfolding according to script.
When the sun sets on her final day in office this January, Swensen will have amassed 32 years of public service, steered operations over more than twice as many elections and overseen the counting of millions of votes.
This election is her last as the county’s chief election officer before she passes the baton to her apparent successor, Chief Deputy Clerk Lannie Chapman.
“It’s hard to believe,” Swensen says. “It’s like I can’t imagine not being a part of this anymore.”
To outsiders, the heart of the county’s election operations may look like a beehive of bureaucracy. To Swensen, it’s exciting. The place “we the people” speak loudest.
Tedious but rewarding work
In a fluorescent-lit basement room with a yellowish hue, dozens of workers create the soundtrack of the night — a constant crackle of perforated tabs being plucked from mailed ballots to expose voter signatures for verification.
“It’s a lot of hard, tedious work,” she says. “But, you know, it’s rewarding because so many people are empowered to vote, and seeing all of this is the result of all the work and effort we give to it.”
For years, the job of sorting ballots, verifying signatures and tabulating votes went mostly unnoticed in the background, but that changed in 2020, when election systems — and the people who oversee them — were thrust into the center of a national debate.
But even with the added attention, only a handful of election observers show up on this night.
They saunter down a path marked by yellow tape — dubbed by Swensen the “yellow brick road” — occasionally snap a few photos on their cellphones, and whisper a few hushed words to one another.
They cause no problems, but because state lawmakers granted them closer access than ever before — they can be within 6 feet of the counting — extra sheriff’s deputies are on hand.
For Swensen, it’s sad to see the politicization of her profession. Managing elections, issuing marriage licenses, processing passports, keeping records for the County Council — they all boil down to administrative tasks.
“That’s all it is,” she says, ballots thudding on the table next to her as helping hands process another pile.
Swensen has devoted much of her career to ensuring voters — as many as legally eligible — get those ballots safely and securely into this room.
After taking office, she made mail-in registration forms accessible in hundreds of places, attended car shows and boat shows for voter outreach, and led a team in developing an application that ultimately spurred statewide online voter registration.
Along the way, Swensen bucked the partisan odds as a Utah Democrat, racking up wins in eight consecutive elections.
“I love the fact that we enable people to vote, and that their voices can be heard,” she says. “I think it’s what’s important in democracy, to have more people participate, make it convenient and accessible.”
In short, she believes in voting. More ballots. More work for her. More joy on her face.
A long, laborious night
For all the buzz that surrounds campaign season, there’s no aura of anticipation that fills the election management center. There’s no impassioned speech to election workers or thunderous applause when the first tallies hit.
It’s all business down here.
But it’s Swensen’s favorite part of the night. There’s a sense of accomplishment in letting voters see the results of fulfilling their civic duty.
Tonight, those first results are hitting later than usual after Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson informed clerks across the state that they must withhold the early returns until every voter in line has cast a ballot.
Normally, Salt Lake County has the first tallies up minutes after 8 p.m. Tonight, they appear about 9:30, and another update won’t land until shortly before 11 p.m.
Swensen spends most of the evening siloed in the tabulation room, an area reserved for election workers but visible to the public through large windows. She emerges occasionally to take questions from reporters (yes, I pestered her plenty) and observers.
As the night wears on, the activity around the election headquarters fades.
The workers who had been processing ballots for hours gradually leave, the cohort of sheriff’s deputies assigned to keep the area secure dwindles, and all but two of those who signed up to be observers peel off as the hours between updates tick by.
Swensen says a new election system — and new guidelines for correcting ballots with impermissible write-in candidates — led to the reporting gaps that resulted in the final update posting Wednesday after 2 a.m.
That late update means Swensen doesn’t make it home until about 3:30 a.m.
It isn’t the latest night of her tenure, but it doesn’t leave much time to ponder as her career as a guardian of democracy comes to a close.
“I was too tired to do much reflecting,” she says with a laugh nine hours later. “I just was glad we were through for the night, and wanted to go home and get a couple hours of sleep.”
To be clear, though, this election isn’t over. The final canvass isn’t until Nov. 22.
Swensen is still counting ballots just like Salt Lake County voters have been counting on her.