Utah election fraud problem is overstepping moms of Latter-day Saint missionaries more than foreign meddlers

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Temporary elections workers begin the process of sorting through mailed-in ballots on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. Voter fraud in Utah is extremely rare, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox recently reassured a man who asked him about the integrity of the state’s elections.

Voter fraud in Utah is extremely rare, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox recently reassured a man who asked him about the integrity of the state’s elections.

And in the few cases that do crop up in the Beehive State, he said, the culprits typically aren’t shadowy characters trying to skew election outcomes — they’re more often Latter-day Saint mothers whose kids are away on religious missions.

“They think, ‘Oh, I’ll just fill it out for him, and I’ll sign it and send it back in,’” Cox explained last week during a gubernatorial campaign visit to the small Box Elder County town of Fielding.

“They could go to jail for that,” he continued, drawing chuckles from the gathered group. “So we kindly ... call them up and tell them that’s illegal, you can’t do that.”

Shane Marsh, a Fielding Town Council member, said he dissuaded his wife last year from filling out a mail-in ballot for the couple’s eldest son, who’s serving a mission in Ecuador.

“I don’t think you better do that,” Marsh remembers telling his wife.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Residents of the town of Fielding in northern Utah welcome Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as he attempts to visit each city and town in Utah during his gubernatorial campaign tour.

Technically, completing another person’s voting form is a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. But it’s only too easy for a parent to get hold of a child’s ballot now that Utah has embraced voting by mail, said Cox, whose office is responsible for supervising state elections.

Election officials do run across these situations on a “fairly frequent basis,” said Rozan Mitchell, Utah County’s elections director. The innocent con often comes to light when election officials notice the signature on the ballot envelope doesn’t match the one they have on file for the voter, she said.

“You say, ‘I’m pretty sure that Nathan’s signature is not that fancy and loopy,'" Mitchell said. “And you ... look at other signatures of voters registered at that address and you go, ‘That signature matches his mother’s to a tee.’”

Sometimes, parents are simply trying to make sure their children have the opportunity to vote, out of concern that snail mail won’t deliver an overseas child’s ballot form in time to be counted. But Mitchell said electronic voting options are now available to young missionaries.

“We’re finding over the years that these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds are a lot more politically active than they were 20 years ago,” she said, “and they really want to vote.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen confirmed that her office has also on occasion dealt with parents who have sent in a ballot on behalf of children away on missions or at college.

Swensen said her office approaches these situations as opportunities for education, understanding that people are on a learning curve as they adapt to the vote-by-mail system. Sometimes, household members accidentally mix up their ballots. Other times, spouses will sign each other’s envelopes, she said.

“We’re trying to get people informed that they can’t sign a ballot for another member of the family,” Swensen said.

Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said she's heard local officials talk about parents filling out ballots for their absent children and other benign voter mistakes and misunderstandings.

“There is this sort of scary specter of voter fraud, but then the data shows it is very, very low,” she said. “And often ... it turns out to be something honestly more bureaucratic and innocent.”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said election officials within his jurisdiction would probably refer voting fraud cases to his office for prosecution — but he can’t remember a time that has ever happened.

Last year, Salt Lake County tallied up about 376,000 mail-in ballots and identified problems with about 3,000 of them, for reasons ranging from missing signatures to signature inconsistencies, Swensen said. The county was able to resolve the issues for 47% of those ballots, she added.

Utah County had to exclude 1,074 mail-in ballots last year, mostly because the voter forgot to sign the affidavit confirming his or her identity. But about 135 of those were because the ballot signature looked inconsistent with the one on file, Mitchell said.

Election workers do notify voters when there’s a problem with their ballot and are often able to correct the issue, occasionally even flushing out the culprit in a signature mismatch, Mitchell said.

“Sometimes, well-meaning missionary moms rat themselves out in situations like that,” she said.

Vote by mail has spread across the state since the first county adopted it in 2012; last year, 27 of the state’s 29 counties used mail-in ballots.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen addresses the County Council during the vote canvass in Salt Lake City on Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018.

Swensen said parents can always forward mail-in ballots to children who are out of town. But requesting and returning a ballot by email is often the most convenient method for people who are overseas, she said. Utah County is even piloting a project that would allow a handful of religious missionaries and active-duty military personnel to vote securely from smartphones during this year’s municipal elections.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages members to engage in the election process, with leaders often reading statements over the pulpit to reaffirm the faith’s political neutrality while nudging listeners to vote, run for office and read up on the issues. Earlier this year, high-ranking church leaders also directed Utah-based stake presidents to name specialists who can help members get involved in the civic process by registering to vote, requesting mail-in ballots, finding polling places and attending party caucus meetings.

Missionaries, however, aren’t specifically encouraged or trained to participate in elections, although they are allowed to vote, church spokesman Doug Andersen said.

Despite scattered anecdotes about parents inadvertently running afoul of election law, the problem isn’t widespread enough to cause alarm, said Justin Lee, the state’s elections director. County clerks generally do a good job of scrutinizing ballot signatures and picking up on mismatches, he said.

“We haven’t heard that it’s a big enough issue or concern from the county clerks that we feel like there needs to be some kind of massive change,” he said.