If you think vote counting in the close 4th Congressional District race between Ben McAdams and Mia Love and that of Proposition 4 on redistricting has been excruciatingly slow, you’re right.
But it’s actually better than it was just three years ago.
In 2015, the Salt Lake City race between Jackie Biskupski and two-term incumbent Mayor Ralph Becker, the spread was 4 percentage points, with Biskupski on top. That wasn’t nearly as close as the current squeaker in Utah’s 4th District or the election to determine whether there will be an independent commission to draw political voting maps every 10 years.
But the absence of a definitive declared winner in the mayor’s contest was especially aggravating because after the election-night count, voters were kept in the dark about the ongoing tallies for two full weeks.
State election law barred county clerks from disclosing the vote count until the official canvass, when Biskupski’s victory became official.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s chief election officer, said at the time that the law made no sense.
“Providing more frequent updates to vote counts is simply the logical thing to do," Cox said. “Candidates and voters alike need closure.”
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, agreed with Cox, even though they had no stake in the Salt Lake City mayor’s race. Among other things, they pointed to three legislative races in 2014 that flipped election-night winners into official canvass losers after a two-week vote-tally intermission.
In 2016, they repealed the legal gag order on county clerks in a unanimous vote of both chambers of the Legislature, save one dissenter — incoming House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.
“Now the pressure is on [the clerks] because they can’t hide behind the law,” Eliason said in an interview this week. “I can’t imagine a scenario where any clerk would want to keep the information from the public.”
The new law requires clerks to disclose the running vote tally any day that they count votes. In Salt Lake County, that has resulted in updated counts every weekday since the Nov. 6 election.
But, in Utah County, there have been just two updates since the election — one last Friday, one on Tuesday. Another is planned for Friday.
So how does Utah County — which is key to deciding the winner in the Love-McAdams contest — get away with not releasing daily updates?
“We don’t count on a daily basis,” said Clerk-Auditor Chief Deputy Scott Hogensen.
While members of the two candidates' campaigns said the office was counting ballots Wednesday, Hogensen insisted that was not the case.
Utah County has counted votes just twice since Election Day, he said, and has released those results the same day, as required.
“The way it works with the system that we have, it all gets processed and then when it’s time to generate the report, then it actually generates the new report and compiles the result," Hogensen said.
“We have no idea what the results are in between. That’s just the way that this particular system works,” he said. “If we were going to do that every day, we would have to stop everything every day and pull it in and it takes awhile to do that.”
Hogensen actually prefers the periodic, rather than daily, updates because “it probably cuts down on making it a circus.”
State Elections Director Justin Lee said while the law does require daily disclosure when votes are counted, many counties spend their time processing votes without counting them day by day.
“So they verify signatures, they separate ballots from envelopes, but they don’t actually run them through the tabulation machine,” Lee said.
“There’s a difference between processing ballots, getting ready to count, and actually counting them. It’s nuanced, but it does matter."
That said, Lee added, "if they’re counting but not releasing [vote tallies] they’re actually breaking the law. … But there’s not a specific penalty tied to that other than a public outcry and a really mean call from our office.”
Lee said state officials are not aware of any county violating the law.
Eliason is hesitant to be overly critical of the way Utah County is slow-walking the election updates, saying he doesn’t know all the challenges to daily disclosures.
But, he said, “people want to know" even if the process seems somewhat messy and can produce roller-coaster patterns as we’ve seen in the 4th District race.
Eliason compares it to a sporting event in which the clerks are the referees.
“It’s what the scoreboard says. I’m sorry if it swings back and forth and looks like a tennis match, but it happens occasionally."