County clerks across the Wasatch Front are encouraging residents to mail in their ballots as they see slow voter turnout in the days leading up to Tuesday’s municipal elections.
In Salt Lake County, several mayoral races are expected to drive turnout — including a high-profile and expensive contest for Salt Lake City mayor — even as County Clerk Sherrie Swensen worries that a number of unchallenged council seats in cities across the valley will keep people from voting.
“We’re kind of hoping for 40% overall,” she said. “I don’t know if we’ll get there just because of some of those unchallenged seats. The other day, yesterday we were at about 16% so far but we’ve got a lot of ballots out to be returned to make that and they’ll have to be coming in fast and furious to even get there.”
Turnout as of Friday afternoon was 20.33% countywide.
At 28.58%, the number of returned ballots was higher in Salt Lake City, where state Sen. Luz Escamilla and Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall will face off to replace Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is not running for a second term. This is the first time in history the general election ballot in Salt Lake City has featured two women for mayor.
The city also has three council seats up for grabs, with incumbents in all running for reelection.
West Jordan is one of three other cities in Salt Lake County that will elect a mayor this year, after a 2017 vote in which residents chose to switch from a council-manager form to a strong mayor.
The new form of government gives the mayor the power to hire or remove department heads and to veto council initiatives and will take effect next year — cutting short the term of Mayor Jim Riding, who was elected in 2017. He’s running for reelection against District 2 Councilman Dirk Burton, who finished first in the primary by 335 votes.
The newly incorporated town of Brighton will have a chance to elect its first mayor on Tuesday. Contenders for that seat include Dan Knopp, who owns the Silver Fork Lodge and Restaurant, and Don O. Despain, former owner of the Brighton Village Store and manager of a sewer district there.
That one may be a close race, after a primary in which just six votes separated Knopp from Despain, who was the first-place finisher.
Finally, residents of Millcreek, which became one of Utah’s newest cities in 2016, will choose between incumbent Jeff Silvestrini, who is running for a full term as mayor against Angel Vice, who works for youth services as an advocate for children in state custody.
Utah County elections
With only city council seats up for election, Utah County is expecting an overall voter turnout of about 30%, though County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner was forecasting it could be more like 20% based on current returns and without a “significant uptick in ballots in the next few days.”
“I would like to see a higher turnout just because we have changed the way that we do elections with me coming into office," she said, “and the more people that are experiencing that this year, the less confusion we’re going to have next year in a major election year.”
The county — once labeled by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert as the “epicenter of dysfunction” in the wake of a number of election-related screw-ups — has piloted a number of new initiatives since Gardner took office last year.
Overseas voters, including active-duty military and religious missionaries, were able to vote during the primary on their smartphones as part of the state’s first-of-its-kind mobile voting pilot program. The county has since broadened that to include disabled voters in the general election.
Gardner said “not very many” of the estimated 100 people who have signed up for the program have cast their ballots yet.
While the pilot project has been touted as a way to engage more voters, some have raised concerns about election hacking of the Voatz app, which uses blockchain technology to keep information safe and anonymized in conjunction with mobile technology and biometric information that verifies a voter’s identity. The FBI is investigating an alleged hacking attempt into the app during West Virginia’s 2018 midterm elections, according to CNN.
The county maintains that the technology is safe and, in September, conducted a Facebook Live audit of the 24 ballots submitted through the app that found no issues.
Utah County is also the only place in the state where some residents will try out ranked-choice voting, in which voters see a full slate of candidates in the general election and rank their favorites, rather than choosing from the survivors of a primary contest. Vineyard and Payson are leading the experiment with that new model.
So far, Gardner said, it’s going well, noting that the county will be separating ballots out from those two municipalities to see if there’s a higher rate of spoiled ballots, and will share that information with the lieutenant governor’s office.
“We haven’t had any problems,” she said. “We haven’t had people calling that were confused; we haven’t had any issues. The ballots we have been receiving have been filled out correctly. We will be monitoring that closely.”
Weber County elections
In Weber County, three cities have mayoral elections: Ogden, North Ogden and Hooper.
Ryan Cowley, the county’s elections director, said there’s been about a 22% turnout overall, and he expects it to be in the 35% to 40% range after Election Day.
Turnout is “a little higher in the cities with [mayoral races]," he said, “but so far it hasn’t been a big jump.”
Contenders in the race for Ogden mayor are incumbent Mike Caldwell and Angel Castillo, a city planning commissioner. Caldwell had a strong showing in the primary election, winning with 44.31% of the votes and a 1,263-vote lead.
In Hooper, the city is guaranteed new leadership after current Mayor Korry Green opted not to run for reelection. Dale Fowers, chairman of the city’s planning commission, had a strong lead in the primary, pulling in 56.54% of the vote as he faces off against Lori Brinkerhoff, a former city councilwoman.
Finally, North Ogden will elect a new top leader to serve for two years as the municipality officially replaces former Mayor Brent Taylor, a Utah National Guard major who was killed in Afghanistan last year. That race will be between Lynn Satterthwaite, a former city councilman, and accountant Neal Berube.
Brent Chugg, whom the City Council appointed to serve as mayor in January, did not file to run for the seat.
How to vote
Each county clerk recommends those who have received ballots in the mail return them sooner rather than later. Vote-by-mail ballots need to be postmarked by Monday, the day before the election, to be counted.
Voters can drop their completed mail-in ballots in their sealed envelopes any time before Tuesday at 8 p.m. at voting centers or drive-up drop boxes. People who miss the Monday postmark deadline can still drop their completed mail-in ballots in the sealed envelopes Tuesday at voting centers or at drive-up drop boxes some counties offer.
Polling locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, where voters will be able to cast their ballots. To find the closest voting center, enter your address at vote.utah.gov.
The last day to register for someone who has never been registered to vote in Utah is Tuesday. Those who have previously been registered in the state but have changed addresses can call their county of residence until Monday to either register or update their address to vote in person.
Those previously registered to vote in Utah who don’t have their registration updated prior to the election can cast a provisional ballot in person on Tuesday.