Should Utah skip balloting for areas without a contested election?

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Voters cast their ballots at the University of Utah's Marriott Library during Election Day, Tuesday Nov. 5, 2019. Salt Lake County saw six uncontested municipal races in the election but state law requires ballots be mailed out even when voters have no choice.

Earlier this month, South Jordan residents reelected Tamara Zander and Patrick Harris to the City Council with unanimous 100% votes.

Both Zander and Harris were unopposed and their elections were the only races listed on the ballots for their respective districts. But a third council seat was contested, effectively requiring that roughly 14,000 ballots be prepared and distributed at taxpayer expense to Zander and Harris’ constituents, who had no real votes to cast.

“You either cancel the whole election or you hold the whole election,” said Justin Lee, director of elections for the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

Lee said law allows for a municipal election to be canceled if all of its races are uncontested. But the law does not allow for individual uncontested races to be selectively skipped, even if there are no other elections being held that year in those areas.

In recent weeks, longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen has expressed interest in altering the law. She said providing the option of skipping single-item, uncontested ballots could save costs and reduce the bureaucratic workload of administering races with predetermined outcomes.

Her office routinely fields complaints and questions from voters whose ballots lack a contested race, she said, and there is already precedent for canceling elections in some instances due to a lack of candidates.

“I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s going to be very controversial to voters,” Swensen said.

She estimated a price tag between $1 and $2 for each ballot in the elections overseen by her office. For the South Jordan elections, that translates to a taxpayer cost of $7,000 to $14,000 for each of the uncontested council races.

Another 4,000 voters in Holladay’s Council District 2 also received a single-item, uncontested ballot, according to Swensen. And three other such ballots were prepared for voters in Taylorsville, Herriman and Riverton, but precise numbers were not immediately available due to other elections — such as local improvement districts — overlapping with some but not all voting precincts in those cities.

The issue is hardly limited to Salt Lake County, with an unknown number of cases throughout the state in which voters lacked a meaningful choice during this year’s elections.

While Utah allows write-in candidates, they must file ahead of time to be eligible for election.

Zander said her friends and neighbors would joke with her about whether they should take the time to vote in her election. She said she encouraged them to fill out and return their ballot, and that she’s grateful for the more than 900 residents who did so even though the outcome was guaranteed.

Voting is a privilege, Zander said, and the act of voting engages a person in the democratic process.

“Lack of action evolves to an apathetic community,” she said. “I don’t like that. That’s not good for any of us.”

But Zander also said the potential cost savings from skipping uncontested races make the issue worth considering.

“The exercise of having a ballot in your hands, even if there is one name on it, is valuable,” Zander said. “I don’t know what that value is. Does it equate to $7,000? I don’t know; I can’t answer that.”

Harris described the issue as “tough,” saying there is a balance between the duty of voting and the cost associated with elections. If the law were changed to allow individual races to be canceled, Harris said he would expect mailers to go out advising voters on why they were not receiving a ballot, or inviting them to vote in person at a polling location.

“We can’t take away the people’s right to vote, though,” he said, “whether it’s one candidate or not.”

Lee said he has spoken with Swensen and that while his office is not prioritizing legislation or currently taking a position on the issue, the question of whether and how to cancel uncontested races could warrant discussion during the Legislature’s interim meetings next year.

While canceling uncontested races is one option, Lee said another approach could be to change the wording of ballot questions to ask whether an uncontested candidate should or should not be elected, similar to the retention elections held for judges.

Under that scenario, he said, a majority “no” vote could trigger a special election, vacancy appointment or other selection process.

“If we want the voters to weigh in on these people, then perhaps we don’t want to cancel races,” Lee said. “Maybe we just change what we’re asking them.”