Utah officials say elections here will be secure, but they’re not so sure about other states

Election officials from around Utah said Monday they are confident that elections here next month will be secure, safe and fraud-free. But they’re not so confident about the rest of the nation.

“We’re doing things that some of these other states aren’t,” Utah County Clerk-Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said at an online forum about election security sponsored by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

Similarly, Justin Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, said, “Here in Utah, I’ll say I don’t anticipate any big issues with by-mail voting. This isn’t something that’s new for us. Our counties know how to do this. So, I don’t anticipate we’ll have a lot of big issues like you may see in some other states.”

Local officials said some states using by-mail voting for the first time — to avoid large crowds at in-person polling locations during the pandemic — may be overlooking safeguards that Utah has developed through the years.

For example, Gardner said some states are sending ballots by mail to all voters, instead of just to active registered voters who participated in recent elections or who recently registered.

“They haven’t spent the time to pull people who have who have died off their lists. So, there’s a lot of concern there,” she said.

Gardner said counties in Utah make such corrections, and constantly check national change of address databases to remove voters who no longer live where they are registered.

Also, all counties in Utah check the signature on every ballot to ensure it matches the voter signature on file.

“In order to do that, we have to have a signature on file for those people," Gardner said. “Not every state has that.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen added that in Utah, every ballot also has an individual identification number printed on it, and it is tied to a specific voter.

“So, when the ballots are returned to us, that number is scanned in, attributed to that voter,” she said, and any duplicates are flagged and removed.

“So, the idea of someone sitting out there and creating these ballots in their living room and getting them into our system" — something President Donald Trump has suggested as a possibility — "just could not happen,” she said.

Gardner said ballots in Utah even use special paper that is not available in retail stores. She said she has seen her system kick out a photocopy of the official ballot — which someone apparently made after a spill on the original — because it used incorrect paper.

Lee adds that Utah has an active cyber team constantly looking for any hacking into voter databases or counting/reporting systems, and it prevented hacks that a few states suffered in previous years.

Also as the ultimate safeguard, he notes that all counties in Utah use paper ballots.

“It’s pretty much impossible to hack paper,” he said “So, if everything were to go horribly wrong, heaven forbid, we could hand count these ballots at the end of the day if there were some major problem with the machines.”

Lee also said Utah and local Postal Service officials have years of experience with by-mail voting, which he believes will help prevent any problems this year.

“We’ve been in constant contact with our regional and state [Postal Service] reps and they ensure us that they can handle the volume of vote-by-mail ballots, and they can get it done timely. Because they’ve done it before, they know what to expect,” Lee said.

Swensen said she has talked to Postal Service officials in Salt Lake County who have assured her that they haven’t had any equipment removals or staff cuts that other areas reported.

Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch said he was told by postal officials that if everyone mailed back ballots on the same day — which they won’t — “they would see about a 10 percent increase in their mail traffic, which they can handle.”

He adds that any Utah voters who still do not trust the Postal Service may drop their ballots at special drop boxes operated by the counties — where ballots are picked up directly by county clerk employees — or at in-person voting centers on Election Day.

Powers noted that on election day in the June primary, her office received 5,000 mail-in ballots and 29,000 in drop boxes, showing that is a trusted and popular option.

With the wide-ranging safeguards in Utah, election officials say they have rarely seen any voter fraud, besides the occasional parent of an out-of-state missionary or college student who attempts to vote for them. Hatch said studies show the chance of fraud is less than being struck by lightning.

Still, officials expect challenges of results — noting they often are.

“Whoever doesn’t win this election is going to demand the recount,” Gardner said. “But what’s key is that we ensure that people have confidence in our process here.”