Audit finds hiccups in Utah's congressional primary election this year

Includes sending wrong ballots to some voters, not ensuring secrecy of all ballots, giving short shrift to third parties.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An audit of Utah's primary election this year found some hiccups, including sending the wrong ballots to some voters.

State Auditor John Dougall says this year’s primary election had some hiccups that need fixing — including county clerks sending the wrong ballots to some voters, not ensuring ballots always are secret, and giving short shrift to some third parties.

He outlined his concerns in letters Tuesday to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who by law is the state’s top election official.

Dougall said in an interview that his office began monitoring the activity after Utah and Wasatch counties publicly acknowledged they had sent the wrong ballots to some voters leading up to the Aug. 15 3rd Congressional District primary, and “we wanted to better understand how that happened so we can avoid the problem in the future.” In the case of Utah County, 68,000 unaffiliated voters received ballots that are meant only for registered Republicans.

The counties sent ballots to the wrong voters in part because they did not fully understand the intricacies of Utah’s Voter Information and State Tracking Application (VISTA) database, Dougall said, and made improper queries to it to generate lists before mailing ballots.

Dougall wrote that one of the counties — presumably Utah County — took steps sufficient to guarantee all improperly cast ballots were not counted.

But in the other, apparently Wasatch, “steps were insufficient and resulted in ballots of multiple unaffiliated voters being counted for the CD3 primary. However, it appears that these errors did not affect the final outcome.”

Dougall said in an interview that auditors identified about a dozen ballots that had been counted improperly in that one county. Auditors figured that in the worst-case scenario, that would not have changed the outcome.

His letter to Cox adds, “We believe these errors could have been mitigated by process and system improvements at the state and county level,” and he called for such action.

Dougall also said some minor parties may be put at a disadvantage by wording on provisional ballot envelopes in two of three counties sampled, where the options listed are Democrat, Republican and Constitution parties, unaffiliated or “other.”

Libertarian, Independent American or United Utah parties aren’t listed, even though the first two “have party membership well in excess of the Constitution Party.”

He added, “We are concerned with the disparate treatment of political parties on official election materials.”

Dougall also expressed concern that ballots may not always be secret, as required by law.

“First, an individual’s votes may be visible through the return envelope with or without the assistance of backlighting” in some counties, he complained. “It would be possible for anyone handling the return envelope to link an individual voter to that voter’s specific votes.”

He said security envelopes or sleeves could remedy that.

He also said state law requires depositing each by-mail ballot, once verified, into a ballot box “without unfolding it or permitting it to be examined.” He said his staff saw two poll workers violate that — but they had no reasons to suspect they revealed how anyone voted to others.