Replacing a by-mail ballot or switching affiliation on primary election day may be an adventure

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A voter drops her ballot at an official ballot drop box at the Salt Lake County complex on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016.

Did you lose your by-mail ballot and need a replacement? Are you an unaffiliated Utah voter who wants to register as a Republican to participate in the party-members-only primary Tuesday?

Fixing such issues on election day used to be as easy as visiting a neighborhood in-person polling site. But none of those will be available Tuesday. Because of COVID-19, the state requires all voting to be by mail or by use of a special drive-up drop box.

Counties will have a few drive-up service centers to fix problems — Salt Lake County offers 12, Utah County has four, but Davis and Weber have only one each. Voters must remain in cars as workers with electronic tablets help them replace ballots or allow unaffiliated voters to register as Republicans (legal deadlines have passed for members of other parties to switch affiliation).

Officials warn that lines may be long, and procedures will be much different than in the past and a bit complicated.

Weber County even warns in red lettering on its webpage that people who wait until election day to address such issues at its one assistance center at the county fairgrounds “assume the risk that the Vote Center may close at any time without notice due to public health concerns” from crowding.

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The situation leads Davis County Clerk-Auditor Curtis Koch to make a special plea to people who in the past chose not to vote by mail because they simply like to do it in person on election day out of tradition.

“If you have a ballot, please vote it,” he says. “If you come to the drive-thru polling location, you know what you’re going to get? A ballot that’s identical to what I sent you three weeks ago. People who do that are just going to slow down the process.”

Davis County’s one drive-up assistance facility will be at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington, where cars will line up and eventually will be directed into what Koch calls a “voting stall” in the parking lot.

Workers with electronic tablets will check voter registration and identification to help people obtain an appropriate ballot or help unaffiliated voters to register Republican. Then they will be directed to another parking area to mark their ballots and will deposit them in a drop box as they exit.

Koch figures that system can handle 5,000 to 10,000 voters and should meet needs based on past primaries. “But it’s all a matter of timing. If we have 5,000 show up at the same time, we’re in trouble,” he said.

Perhaps reducing potential crowds is that “there will be no election day or same-day voter registration,” notes Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. The Legislature eliminated that in a new law passed just to govern procedures in this primary during the pandemic.

Instead of one large assistance center like those in Weber and Davis counties, Swensen opted in Salt Lake County to offer a dozen centers scattered throughout her county. “Voters can go to any one of them,” she said. A list of locations is on her website.

Election workers with electronic tablets will also run up to cars to handle needs and obtain an appropriate ballot. But “there are not parking spots for this. This is a drive-up, drive-through” operation, Swensen says — and adds that lines may become long.

Voters who receive a ballot at drive-up assistance center in Salt Lake County will also be asked to take their ballots and leave immediately, and then mail them or deposit them in special drop boxes by 8 p.m.

A potential complicating factor to new procedures is that a big wave of voters have been switching party affiliation to vote Republican after some prominent Democrats and leaders of racial minorities urged that move to give them more voice in a state that has not elected a Democratic governor in 40 years. They argued that the June primary is often the real election in Utah, not the November general election.

Swensen said that movement has the potential to bring out more unaffiliated voters that could clog lines at election day assistance centers. But, “we’re hoping that we already have served, and mailed ballots to, people who really are interested in the election.”

Data from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office shows a decrease of 64,633 active unaffiliated voters statewide since the first of the year, and 25,470 this month alone. Meanwhile, Republicans have increased by 106,815 this year and 53,483 this month. Democrats decreased by 10,228 this month, but are still up by 20,288 overall this year.

A rule change for this election allows voters to mail ballots on election day, instead of requiring that they be postmarked the day before. But Swensen warns that means they must be postmarked on election day and suggests dropping them off the previous day to ensure that happens.

Changes also mean results will be slow in coming. On election night, Swensen and Koch said new legislation does not allow them to post any results until 10 p.m., and then they plan no further updates until the next afternoon.

In the past, results started coming when polls closed at 8 p.m. and were updated repeatedly late into the night as more ballots were counted. Koch notes that won’t happen because ballots will be quarantined for at least 24 hours because of COVID-19, so no votes cast on election day will be counted that night.

Swensen noted the Legislature opted not to allow any results until 10 p.m., worried that some people might wait to see early results before deciding how to vote with mailing now allowed on election day. She said some even proposed stalling any reporting until midnight. “It is what it is, and we have to live with it,” she said.

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