Davis County election messaging generates confusion, complaints

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People line up for one of twelve drive-up voting assistance centers in Salt Lake County, Utah, at the Northwest Recreation Center on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, as workers go to cars to help people get ballots to replace lost ones or help unaffiliated voters register Republican to be able to vote in the primary. Davis County had just one drive-up voting locations on election day.

State leaders gave Utahns an extra day this year to postmark their ballot for the June primary, one of several election-related changes made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that new deadline wasn’t communicated in Davis County, which instructed its voters to return their ballots four days sooner, by June 26 — a message that led to confusion among at least some residents of the state’s third-most populous county and prompted complaints from campaigns in close contests in which every vote counts.

Davis County Clerk Curtis Koch said in an interview on Monday that the office’s direction to voters that they return their ballots early is nothing new. It’s been a practice in the county since 2016, he said, and is part of an effort to decrease the number of ballots that are rejected because they come in too late.

“Most citizens do not understand the difference between a mail by date and a postmark date,” he said. “So the average citizen is going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got until, in this case, the 30th to mail.' And so they will mail it on the 30th. Now that may get postmarked, and it may not and that’s because different post offices, depending on where you drop it, have different postmark times.”

Putting an earlier mail-in date on ballots effectively guarantees that more voters will get a postmark and that their votes will be counted, he said.

The practice was implemented after the June 2016 primary, in which Koch says the elections office rejected 597 of the 44,062 ballots that came in. After putting new language on the November ballots to encourage voters to mail them sooner, just 173 of 140,986 ballots went uncounted because they didn’t come in on time.

This year, the county will reject at least 240 ballots that were not postmarked in time, Koch said — though he noted that any ballot received after June 26 with the proper postmark was counted.

“Our goal, in the end, is to count as many ballots as legally possible,” he said. “No ballots were rejected that were cast in a timely manner.”

Still, the messaging in Davis County caused confusion for at least a few voters — among them former state Rep. Adam Gardiner, who posted on Twitter about his difficulty finding a ballot drop box in Davis County on election day.

North Salt Lake Councilwoman Natalie Gordon said he could also consider dropping it in the mailbox, though she urged Gardiner to “make sure it gets postmarked today.”

“The ballot said mail ‘now through Friday before the election,’” he replied. “I didn’t know the rules changed. And I’m betting no one else did either.”

In light of confusion about the postmark deadline, Gardiner, who declined an interview for this story, said on Twitter that he’d gone to the Layton City vote center on election day to drop off a family member’s ballot. But once he got there, he found the doors locked and a sign directing him to the Farmington drive-thru location 20 minutes away.

It was an “easy fix,” he wrote, but it took him by surprise to see there was only one location for all election day voters to take their ballots to.

And he wasn’t the only one who was confused.

“The conflicting information is so frustrating,” one woman wrote in response to Gardiner’s posts on Twitter. “Ballot says we have until the 29th to drop them off, but we have until today. Ballot says it needs to be postmarked by the 26th, that’s not true either. Website makes no mention of the single ballot box location.”

In line with its usual practices, Koch said the county’s 15 ballot drop centers at city halls were open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the day before election day. In a normal election year, those locations are closed on election day and voters must drop their ballots at polling locations in each city in the county, Koch said. This year, the Legacy Events Center in Farmington was the only option for same-day voters who didn’t realize they could go into a post office to ensure their ballots were postmarked.

“If I have to do drive-thru polling locations, I can’t run 15 of those,” he explained of the more limited offerings.

Koch noted that the county had sent notification to voters about how to return their ballot at a polling location on election day, as well as the hours that it would be available. But he acknowledged there are challenges in communicating with the public, particularly amid changing election rules.

Possibly compounding the confusion in Davis County was messaging from several of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s supporters. The gubernatorial candidate’s campaign had created a county-specific flyer to help voters that instructed anyone who had not sent their ballot in by mail to drop it off at one of the 15 vote center locations by 8 p.m. on election day — even though they were closed that day. That incorrect information was posted twice under Gardiner’s election day Twitter thread.

A campaign spokeswoman for Cox, who oversees elections in the state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Gordon, the North Salt Lake councilwoman, offered on Twitter on election day to head up a personal “primary election helpline” for anyone who was having trouble voting. She told The Tribune on Monday that she didn’t hear of any widespread confusion about how or when to vote in Davis County.

“And people are usually pretty open with me if they have problems; they just let me know,” she said, adding that the she’d heard only praise for the drive-thru centers as fast and efficient.

Asked if the situation could have affected results in the close race to replace Rep. Rob Bishop in the 1st Congressional District, Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson said he had “absolutely no concerns.”

With the challenges from COVID-19, Stevenson said he believes the county clerk-auditor’s operation was “as organized and as good as you could ever expect.”

Stevenson didn’t concede to businessman Blake Moore on Monday but said he was prepared to make the congratulatory call when the time comes, anticipating that ballot return trends would hold.

Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections, said it’s up to each individual county what to put on their envelopes and that he doesn’t see any legal problems with Davis County’s messaging.

“It hasn’t really seemed to hurt their turnout,” he noted. “We’ve had several campaigns at this point kind of reach out to us and raise that concern. It’s something we’ll probably have a conversation about, but I don’t know there’s any major concern with it at this point.”

In future elections, Koch said the county will make clear on its envelopes that mailing a ballot the Friday before the election is a recommendation — not a mandate.

“But we also know that we will probably see an increase in untimely ballots,” he said. “And that’s really unfortunate.”

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this report