Salt Lake County Republican Party worries about long voting lines on Election Day in conservative areas

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) People line up at the polling station at West Jordan Library on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016. Polling staff said they were very busy with people showing up beginning at 6:30 a.m. before opening with waits up to two hours midmorning.

The Salt Lake County Republican Party is worried voters will see a repeat Tuesday of the long lines that stretched up to four hours on Election Day in 2016 — and that more conservative areas will be most impacted.

Salt Lake County has 43 voting locations this year, GOP Chair Scott Miller said in a letter to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen on Thursday. And while the more liberal Salt Lake City area has one voting center for every 11,000 registered voters, Riverton has just one center for its entire registered voter population of 21,716.

“Riverton is a strong Republican area and as I look at your file, it appears that voting locations have been strategically placed to better accommodate Democratic voters, while inconveniencing Republican voters on the west side,” Miller wrote in his letter. “As Chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, I cannot help but wonder if this is a subtle but very real attempt at Republican voter suppression.”

Swensen said Miller’s claim that the voting locations are based on party is an untrue “political slam."

“I would never do anything to try to disenfranchise voters,” she said. “That’s why I implemented a vote-by-mail system. That’s why we have early voting, including in Riverton.”

She also said it’s overly simplistic to look solely at how many voter centers there are per city — an analysis that doesn’t take into consideration the number of machines, the number of people doing check-ins or the proximity of centers in a geographic area not focused on city boundaries.

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen verifies some of the thousands of provisional and absentee ballots still being counted to meet the deadline for an official election total on Tuesday.

“We don’t look at it in a city perspective,” she said, noting that residents can vote at any of the centers in the county. “We look at the map and we try to put them out through all the county and try to disperse them evenly.”

Riverton isn’t the only city that has just one voting location. So does Herriman, which has a population of 17,828 registered voters; Cottonwood Heights, with 19,988 registered voters; South Salt Lake, 7,961 voters; and Bluffdale, 6,351.

Polling places in 2016 saw an unexpected surge of voters on Election Day thanks to a mix of new voters, doubts over mail-in voting and people holding onto old habits.

Miller says voters in Riverton had two locations in 2016 and still saw long lines. And with the chance to weigh in on the tight 4th Congressional District race between Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and Republican Rep. Mia Love, Miller says turnout is expected to be high.

“Long lines and frustrated voters negatively affect the number of votes cast,” he wrote in his letter to Swensen. “The fact that you are a Democrat, running for re-election, and Mayor McAdams is a Democrat running in the 4CD race, only heightens my suspicion and can lead to accusations of foul play.”

He and his party are, of course, backing Swensen’s election rival, Republican Rozan Mitchell, the county elections director running against her boss.

“At a time when the country is concerned about election security, aging voting equipment and access to voting, voters in Salt Lake County deserve better,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Sherrie mentioned that there is more to the process than just the number of locations. If she is applying logic as to the number of machines and staff at a location she has not disclosed that information. The 40,000 voters in Riverton and Herriman should have more options on Election Day. Geographically they are distanced from other voting locations."

Miller requested a “clarification or justification” for the voting location “discrepancy” and said that if Riverton residents experience longer lines than those in other parts of the county, he would file a formal complaint against the office.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs also expressed concern about the long lines.

“It is concerning, I guess I would say, that Riverton has only one voting location given the fact there were two back in 2016,” he said. “And that is something that is totally under the purview and discretion of the county clerk, and so I would just, I guess, echo the comments of the GOP chair wanting to understand why that decision was made and if anything can be done or needs to be done to rectify it.”

Swensen said the Riverton Senior Center location will become a “megacenter” this year, with extra poll workers and machines that will make up for increased demand. She also said she doesn’t expect there will be long lines this year, blaming those on her Mitchell, for implementing a new process in 2016 to have poll workers update information on provisional voters on the spot.

Mitchell, who has taken an extended leave of absence from the office following tensions in the office, has denied making unilateral decisions about the election and said too few voting centers and machines caused the long lines.

Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday that he wasn’t convinced by Swensen’s reassurances about the Riverton center. He’s still concerned the parking won’t be sufficient and that voter volume in the area will be higher due to population growth and a number of people who still haven’t received their ballots.

“This is grossly incompetent in my opinion," he said. “And when these lines are through the roof come Tuesday, you know, there will be hell to pay.”