Election bill provides more in-person voter options but county clerks want longer time frame for mailed ballots

A new bill under consideration in the state Legislature would give Utah voters more options for casting their ballot in November’s election than they had in this summer’s almost entirely by-mail primary.

The bill, HB6009, would allow counties to offer outdoor and in-person voting as well as drive-thru options, plus dropbox and mail-in balloting — all in an effort to provide “added flexibility” as the coronavirus pandemic wears on, said Sen. Wayne Harper, the bill’s sponsor.

But the legislation doesn’t provide the extra time frames some lawmakers and county clerks want to see. Their concerns stem from national changes that have created postal service delivery delays that some worry could prevent ballots from being returned in time to be counted.

“In several parts of the state, including Salt Lake County, there are some sections of the county and of the state where it takes one week for the mail to get to or from the voters,” Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch told lawmakers during a briefing on the bill at Tuesday’s Government Operations Interim Committee meeting.

Hatch said the state’s county clerks would like this year to mail out ballots 28 days before an election rather than 21, which is the standard time frame. An extra week would help clerks get ballots to those who have moved or haven’t updated their voter registration, he said.

The Weber County clerk said his fellow election officials also want the state to add an additional seven days to the two week canvassing period. That extra week, which the state granted to counties during the primary election, would help in case of a high volume of ballots and could be vital if any county officials or employees come down with the coronavirus, he said.

“If our elections team contracts COVID during the early voting period or on Election Day and has to be quarantined, that takes out a huge chunk of our ability and capacity to process ballots,” Hatch said. “A third week of canvass would allow us to overcome the quarantine period and be able to come in and take care of that.”

Harper, R-Taylorsville, said he’d considered both of those requests while drafting the bill but hadn’t felt either were necessary. In addressing the 28-day time frame for mailing ballots, Harper said he spoke with a majority of stakeholders who “felt like it would be safe and secure still to do the 21 days.” And he noted that county clerks had not used the extra week for the canvassing period during the primary and were able to get their ballots certified by the normal two week deadline.

“I have not heard a real strong need to do that, so we’ve just decided to leave it as is because that’s what most people are used to,” he said.

HB6009 also would require counties that have a higher risk of ballots being postmarked late to work with their local post office to date stamp those ballots as they come in and to place additional drop boxes for ballots in the county, Harper noted.

“Everything will be done in a timely fashion,” he said. “My information is [the postal service] will be able to handle it and we’ll be fine there.”

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday announced he is suspending until after the election cost-cutting measures such as a suspension of overtime and leaving behind mail where distribution centers are running late. Those initiatives had caused an uproar among voting-rights groups suspicious of the motives.

As part of the general election modifications made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Harper’s bill calls on the Lieutenant Governor’s Office to work with county clerks to establish protocols to protect the health and safety of voters and officials during the election. That includes requiring poll workers to use protective gear and wash their hands regularly and to promote social distancing.

The bill requires the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, too, to conduct a campaign to educate voters about changes in voter registration, methods and processes for casting ballots and to encourage Utahns to vote by mail rather than at an in-person voting station.

That outreach will be done with federal CARES Act funding, according to Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections.

HB6009 would also allow the Lieutenant Governor’s Office the ability to modify deadlines, locations and methods of conducting the 2020 election — including the power to cancel in-person voting in specific counties or statewide within seven days of the election “due to health concerns.”

“I’m not sure if it’s necessary or not but we wanted to put in that flexibility,” Harper explained, noting that he hopes that provision of the bill won’t be necessary.

“If that is triggered, there is enhanced education, outreach, drop boxes, things like that that have to occur in order to make sure the people who are expecting to vote on Election Day in person or drive up, that is addressed and they can still exercise their franchise,” Harper added.

He said the bill does not define criteria for establishing an emergency but that such a decision would likely be based on the state’s color coded restriction levels as well as the number of cases and hospitalizations in an area.

If an emergency was declared and in-person locations were closed, that could affect same-day voter registration, said Tom Vaughn, with the office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. Same-day registration would then only be available in an affected county that had chosen to do drive-up voting or in-person outdoor voting, he said.

The bill cautions that anyone who waits to vote “assumes the risk that in-person voting and in-person voter registration may be canceled to protect the public health and welfare.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, said during discussion of the bill that she was worried about the unrestrained provisions Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox would have to cancel in-person elections.

“I have a little bit of a concern about that in terms of if it’s open-ended what would define an emergency situation,” she said.

The lone public commenter on the bill, Mark Tourangeau, expressed similar concerns about what he characterized as Cox’s “unilateral right” to cancel in-person voting at the same time the lieutenant governor is up for election for governor.

“Even though other avenues exist for submitting one’s vote, canceling in-person voting in a county will likely impact overall voter turnout,” he said. “Vesting the Lieutenant Governor’s Office with the right to cancel in-person voting on a county-to-county basis presents an inherent conflict of interest that should be avoided to ensure the legitimacy of the governor’s race.”

Tourangeau said he’d like to see that power vested with a committee instead, one made up of public health officials as well as members of both political parties.

As a candidate for governor, Cox has announced he will essentially recuse himself from any complaints or controversies involving the race or his candidacy, leaving those matters to a neutral third-party arbiter.

The committee favorably recommended Harper’s bill Tuesday with a dissenting vote from Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, who said he would be willing to support the legislation with some of the timeline extensions county clerks have been seeking.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, suggested a floor amendment to the bill that would allow for the 28-day option for sending out ballots and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said she would also like to see the canvass period extended.

The bill will move to the full Senate for consideration at Thursday’s special session.