Voting begins: Salt Lake County mails 500k ballots to voters

Let the voting begin.

The Nov. 6 Election Day is still four weeks away — but nearly 500,000 ballots were mailed Monday to Salt Lake County voters, County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said.

Although no U.S. mail delivery was offered Monday because of the federal Columbus Day holiday, Swensen said arrangements were made to drop off ballots at the still-operating central post office in Salt Lake City.

State law requires that ballots be sent at least three weeks before the election, but Swensen said she started as early as legally allowed to help catch and correct address errors — and provide a head start on verifying signatures on returned ballots.

“We verify each and every signature. So the extra week really helps with a county as large as ours,” she said.

“Also, a lot of people who moved think they will receive a ballot if they updated their address with the post office. That’s not true. By law, ballots cannot be forwarded."

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen verifies some of the thousands of provisional and absentee ballots counted in 2017.

Still, updated addresses attached to some returned ballots allow Swensen’s office to mail replacements. Also, people who don’t receive a ballot within a week or so still have plenty of time to call the county clerk to receive a ballot with time to spare.

Swensen hopes many voters will return completed ballots quickly. But she notes many like to wait until near Election Day to vote to watch for campaign surprises. “They are free to do whatever they want, but returning them early helps in many ways.”

For example, “You would be surprised at how many people also forget to sign their ballots,” Swensen said. So returning ballots early allows county clerk employees to notify voters about any problems in time to remedy them.

Jason Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, said 27 of Utah’s 29 counties will vote primarily by mail this year — all but Emery and Carbon counties. Two years ago, 20 counties voted by mail. Among those using it this year that did not in 2016 include populous Utah and Washington counties.

Lee urges voters to visit vote.utah.gov online “where you can look up information about both candidates and ballot propositions, including the pro and con statements that have been submitted by opposition and support groups” to initiatives.

Lee and Swensen also expect higher-than-usual turnout for the midterm elections this year.

“Midterm elections historically are much lower than presidential elections,” Lee said. “But we think that with some of the ballot initiatives and some high-profile candidates that we’ll see a slightly higher than normal turnout for a midterm.”

Voters will decide ballot initiatives dealing with medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and political gerrymandering. GOP Rep. Mia Love faces a tight congressional race with Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. And voters will determine whether to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch with Republican Mitt Romney or Democrat Jenny Wilson.

In Salt Lake County, Sheriff Rosie Rivera is challenged by Lt. Justin Hoyal, District Attorney Sim Gill is opposed by prosecutor Nathan Evershed, and Swensen is challenged by her own elections chief, Rozan Mitchell. Several council seats are also up for election.

Besides other congressional and county races, Utah also has 90 legislative races — including 68 incumbents seeking re-election.

Swensen said she has seen higher-than-usual numbers of new voter registrations — 20,000 in just the past couple of weeks — a sign of extra interest in elections. So she said her office is gearing up to verify and count more ballots than usual.

Swensen reminds voters that by-mail ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 5, the day before the election. “Two years ago, we received many that were postmarked late — so we couldn’t count them," she said. “People should consider mailing them by maybe the Friday before the election to ensure they are postmarked.”

Voters are also free to drop off ballots on Election Day at in-person voting locations (Salt Lake County will have 43) and at dozens of drop boxes around the county. Those locations are also available on vote.utah.gov.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dave Sawatzki drops his election ballot in the official drop box at the Salt Lake County complex for primary election day on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

In the presidential election two years ago, Salt Lake County had long lines at polling places — blamed at the time on people who wanted to cast votes traditionally instead of sending them by mail.

Lee said that people are becoming more used to voting by mail, which may solve some of the earlier problems. “Ninety percent of those who voted in the primary election this year voted by mail,” he said.

Swensen blames the long lines two years ago not on extra people showing up to vote in person, but on mistakes that slowed the process — including the process for handling Election Day registrations. She said those problems have been fixed and does not expect long lines this year.