Salt Lake County Election Director Rozan Mitchell, a Republican, will face longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, in this year’s election — a subordinate vs. boss contest that has become something of a pattern in the county.
Mitchell said the matchup has “definitely strained” her and Swensen’s office relationship.
“This is something different that we’ve never ever experienced in the clerk’s office that we’ve had somebody running,” Mitchell said. “There’s been other places in the county and in the state where that happens, so it’s not new and unique. But it is different for the elections office and the clerk’s office.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat, faces a challenge from one of his deputies as he seeks a third four-year term. Homicide prosecutor Nathan Evershed announced his plans in January to run as a Republican.
And County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, a Democrat who became Utah’s first-ever female to serve in the position when she was appointed last August, is up against one of her lieutenants. Justin Hoyal, a 21-year veteran of the Unified Police Department, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in November.
The D.A. and sheriff’s offices are much larger than the clerk’s office, and the challengers don’t work as closely with their bosses as does Mitchell with Swensen.
Swensen acknowledged her relationship with Mitchell has caused some “friction.”
“It’s difficult to have your election director, who’s supposed to be overseeing the election, running for election,” she said. “But I’ve always had the attitude that I would not ever not want someone to run for election if they choose to run for election and hold a public office.”
However, Swensen attributed the strain on their relationship not to this year’s election but to the 2016 one, in which Mitchell implemented a new process to have poll workers update provisional voters — a move she blames for causing the hours-long wait times voters experienced in some areas. Afterward, Mitchell said the lines were due to the need for more voting locations.
Though their matchup has caused some additional strife, Mitchell says her deep understanding of the elections office from hands-on experience has positioned her to preserve what the county does well and target other areas it could improve.
“While I think 28 years of Sherrie’s leadership has been awesome, I just feel that it’s time for a change and I want to be that change,” said Mitchell, who has worked in the county for 13 years, and at the state elections office before that. “I want to be able to bring about some new ideas, some fresh perspective.”
Among those changes, Mitchell said she’d like to work on implementing a new voting system and raised concerns that the county’s current touchscreen machines are not secure. She said she’d like to offer voters an in-person voting experience similar to the paper vote-by-mail system.
“I know that’s one area Sherrie and I don’t necessarily see eye to eye on,” Mitchell said. “I think that the largest county in the state of Utah should be out there on the forefront. We shouldn’t be afraid to move forward and we need to lead out on this. And we’re not.”
Swensen said she has “no concerns” with the security of the current voting system. The county recently invested $600,000 in high-speed scanners and highly encrypted voting software that should last until 2021. She sees no rush to change things sooner.
A major reason Swensen said she decided to run again was to see the county through the implementation of a new voting system after that date, as well as redistricting (where voting boundaries are redrawn after the census) in 2020.
Her years of experience in the post are the right fit to see those changes through, Swensen says. She also touted her knowledge of the marriage and passport divisions and council clerking duties.
“When I came into office, it was entirely different — the way we performed elections, the laws were different, there wasn’t even an internet, the way we register people to vote and the way we set up elections,” she said. “I have constantly changed the way we move forward with elections. Being innovative and being able to see what the needs are, a lot of that comes from the experience that you have in having been there.”
But though her experience has mostly been in elections, Mitchell said she isn’t worried.
“I am aware of those processes and what they do,” she said. “But I also think it’s important that 28 years ago when Sherrie was elected clerk, she didn’t have that experience either, and she’s learned and acquired those skills. … And I can do the same.”
Overall, Swensen and Mitchell said they don’t think the office awkwardness will get in the way of their professional conduct.
“We just have to remember that we have an election to run and that that’s our job first and foremost and the campaign comes second,” Mitchell said. “I hope that we can continue to move forward and work together to make sure that the voters in Salt Lake County have the very best in the election process this year.”