As Utah ballots arrive in mailboxes this week, officials urge returning them early

Utah voters will begin receiving ballots in the mail this week as election officials make two special requests: Please vote early, and vote by mail instead of waiting to come to an in-person election center on Election Day Nov. 3.

“I’ve been inundated with questions from voters about where their ballots are,” says Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. “But the state doesn’t allow us to mail any earlier than 21 days before Election Day” — so they are being mailed Tuesday in most counties.

Justin Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, says a ballot is going to every active registered voter in the state. “So, 1.6 million ballots are going out. That’s the most ever.”

Swensen notes that with the pandemic, this will be unlike any other general election ever.

“I hope we can impress upon people how important it is that we don’t turn the election into a superspreader event at our vote centers,” she says. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

So, officials ask that voters use the by-mail system and to send back ballots early.

“Our official advice is mailing them a week in advance” of Election Day in Utah, says regional U.S. Postal Service spokesman Zachary Laux.

By Utah law, ballots must be postmarked by the day before Election Day, or Nov. 2 this year, to be valid. Swensen notes ballots sometimes must be mailed a bit before that to ensure they receive the appropriate postmark, so her county now suggests mailing them by the Friday before the election.

Lee says the state is confident that the Postal Service can handle on-time delivery of any ballot sent by the legal deadline, given its years of experience with by-mail voting here and reports that post offices have not suffered reductions in personnel or machinery in the state — which critics have said occurred in other states.

“We differ from other states because if it’s postmarked the day before Election Day, it can still be counted as long as it’s received by the canvass,” or the final certification of the election, Lee says. In Utah’s biggest counties, the canvass will be two weeks after the election — Nov. 17 — although some smaller counties will hold them as early as a week after the election.

“So, I’m not as concerned about people mailing it a week early,” Lee says. “But certainly, the earlier they mail it back, the easier it is on everyone.”

For example, early returns allow counties to resolve any problems they may find with a ballot — such as if a voter forgot to sign the ballot, which is needed to allow matching to signatures on file to help avoid fraud.

Utah voters can also choose to avoid going through the Postal Service by depositing their ballots at one of more than 160 drop boxes statewide, where county clerks pick up ballots at least daily for processing. Salt Lake County, for example, has 21 such boxes at city halls and other sites. Lists of drop box locations are available online at vote.utah.gov.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Dave Sawatzki drops his election ballot in the official drop box at the Salt Lake County complex for primary election day on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Utah voters also are able to check the status of their registration and ballots online at vote.utah.gov. It shows when an individual’s ballot has been mailed, received and processed — and whether a voter is registered.

Swensen urges voters to give officials a few days after mailing back their ballots before expecting to see updates online. If voters have not received a ballot in a timely manner, they are urged to call their county clerks to request a replacement.

Swensen notes that ballots sent to specific voters each have unique printed codes to prevent fraud. If a voter spoils a ballot or requests a replacement, the original ballot is officially voided in computer systems to prevent counting more than one ballot for that voter.

Voters may still register by Oct. 23 to have a ballot mailed to them. Also, some counties, including Salt Lake County, allow registration on Election Day at in-person voting centers, but Swensen urges early registration and voting.

She says in-person voting on Election Day could lead to long lines, and present unnecessary health risks during the pandemic.

“To put it in perspective, if we have 20 people in line — the line would be 120 feet long with the 6-foot social distancing,” Swensen says. “So the message we’re sending voters is that the vote centers are there for people who did not receive their ballot or have a problem.”

She says many people in the past wanted to vote on Election Day because they wanted an “I voted” sticker.

“So we’re including a sticker in their ballot packet," she says, “so they don’t need to come to get a sticker.”

Lee adds that in most counties, people going to Election Day vote centers “would be handed a ballot that looks pretty much exactly like your by-mail ballot, and then will often be pointed to a drop box. So voting in person is not going to be a different experience than voting by mail.”

Unlike most counties, Salt Lake County still uses machines at its Election Day vote centers and for early voting — and Swensen notes they have special audio options to help blind voters. Early in-person voting begins at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Oct. 20, and on Oct. 26 at 12 other locations. Sites are listed at vote.utah.gov.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Mark Sadler casts his ballot during early voting at Trolley Square on Aug. 12, 2019.

Swensen notes that because of the pandemic, many former poll workers — who often are older and at higher risk — have opted out this year. At the same time, her county has hired twice as many poll workers than it had for the past two general elections to handle extra work caused by the pandemic.

“We have to include more check-in tables. We will have line coordinators who will help with social distancing,” she says. And workers will help with extra disinfecting.

She notes that Election Day voters in Salt Lake County will be given gloves to wear while using voting machines and their own stylus to sign electronically. That adds steps that could slow things down and make lines longer.

Lee says, “We don’t want people to be stuck in line on Election Day. And with the vast majority of voters receiving a ballot in the mail, we encourage them to vote by mail or take that ballot to a drop box.”

While President Donald Trump has charged without evidence that by-mail voting could easily lead to fraud, Utah election officials have repeatedly expressed confidence in the balloting.

“Our election is safe and secure here in Utah,” Lee says. “We’ve done a lot of work with by-mail over the years ensuring that that is safe and secure. And we’ve done a lot of work with our election security team to make sure that our web and other systems are secure as well.”

Races in Utah this year include those for president; Congress; governor and other statewide positions; the Legislature; county positions; and school boards. They also include questions on whether to retain state and local judges, and whether to approve seven amendments to the state constitution.