“If Facebook could be shut down for a while, maybe it would ease up,” Sanpete County Clerk Sandy Neill joked this week.
Still, a false rumor has been circulating on Facebook that by-mail ballots in Sanpete County won’t count and that voting in person is the only fail-safe method, she said.
“We’re getting more from the drop boxes than we are from the mail, which is unusual,” Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said in an interview. “That’s never occurred before and I’m sure it was because people were concerned about the post office.”
At this late date — with the state law requiring a by-mail ballot be postmarked no later than Monday to be counted — Swensen and other clerks are urging voters use the county drop boxes rather than the mail.
Washington County Clerk-Auditor Kim Hafen said he’s also spoken with residents who are worried about vote-by-mail, although he faults national media for stirring up these concerns and says they come up every election cycle. To reassure voters, he’ll typically describe the security precautions for handling and counting mail-in ballots, he said.
“And if that doesn’t help, then I can’t do much more,” he said.
“Tempers may flare or whatever,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect.”
Experts worry those requests could spur confusion over the line between legal poll watching and voter intimidation.
County clerks across the state say they’ve had several people sign up to poll watch but that most are affiliated with a group, like a political party.
“We have a few more than normal [signed up], but not a ton,” said Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch, noting that he welcomes the sunshine that poll watchers bring to the process.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah plans to have poll watchers out in force this year, with between 100 and 200 volunteers in about a dozen counties across the state. But their effort is focused more on the nuts and bolts of ensuring people can vote than it is in anticipation of voter intimidation at the polls.
The organization is also running a social media monitoring program with volunteers who aim to help answer questions and get “accurate, trustworthy information to voters” on Election Day.
“There’s so much information, unfortunately, a lot of politically motivated misinformation and disinformation and we’re trying to cut through that to the facts and the basics of how do you cast your ballot,” Venugopal said.
If there is a legitimate instance of voter intimidation at the polls, county clerks say they’ll be prepared, noting they often coordinate with law enforcement to ensure a quick response if necessary.
Hatch said that while the county plans every year for voter intimidation, “we’re giving it a little bit more attention” this election.
Davis County Clerk-Auditor Curtis Koch said the elections office there also has contingency plans in place. The law, he said, “is very clear on what can take place in and around polling locations. And so if there’s anything that’s gone afoul or amiss from what the law is, we will address that in an appropriate manner to make sure there is no voter intimidation.”
In Box Elder County, the clerk is stationing law enforcement at each of the vote centers — something officials do on occasion when there’s a high-interest election. Clerk Marla Young said she’s unaware of any specific threats this year but wants police to be around as a precaution.
“Just because there is a little unrest of people this year,” Young said. “But I don’t really have any concerns, because I have prepared for that.”
Young said she’s also had a striking number of people ask her if they could change their votes even after they’ve submitted their ballots. The answer is no, she said.
All things considered, though, Utah’s extensive experience with by-mail voting puts it in a much better position to weather the 2020 election compared to most other states, said Baodong Liu, a University of Utah political science professor.
“We are not just putting everything together at the last minute,” he said. “And we certainly have much more psychological assurance about using it in this state, and we don’t have the same kind of anxiety about whether our votes will be counted, if we do use vote-through-mail.”
‘All politics is national’
The turnout so far — which already totals about three-quarters of the ballots cast in the 2016 election — is good news to Justin Lee, the state’s elections director.
“This is the outcome we wanted to see, is voters voting early,” he said, “and not waiting to vote until Election Day.”
“This year, it seems that all politics is national,” Merchant said. “And that doesn’t bode well for Donald Trump, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for Republicans.”
“Maybe he was confusing us with California or something,” Brown joked about his Democratic counterpart.
Amid high voter engagement in this election season, county clerks in the Wasatch Front say the challenge they’re most hoping to stave off are long lines at the polls on Tuesday, spurred on by those last-minute voters who may not trust the post office and want to ensure their ballots are counted.
“We used to say, well, [it’s fine] if you prefer to vote early or in person on Election Day, but this is really important this time because of the social distancing,” Swensen said, urging people to cast their ballots ahead of Election Day. “If you have 20 people in line, your line is 120 feet long and we don’t want them to unnecessarily use the vote centers and cause crowding.”
Several clerks noted that anyone who turns up at an in-person voting center on Election Day will receive the same ballot they got in the mail and are similarly encouraging Utahns to vote the ballot they received.
“It’s really a tremendous waste of the voter’s time and of the government’s resources to request another ballot that is identical to what they’ve already received,” Koch said. “If they choose to do that, we’ll do everything we can to make it work for them, just recognizing there could be long lines if people don’t vote the ballot we mailed to them.”
Clerks around the state have implemented unique protocols to stem the spread of the coronavirus, from equipping poll workers with personal protective gear to implementing drive-up balloting, as in Davis County.
Voters will also be sent to their cars to fill out their ballots if the center becomes crowded on Election Day in order to maintain social distancing, she said.
With all eyes on county clerks across the state, Hafen, the Washington County official, said he and his colleagues feel like they’re together in facing the challenges of COVID-19 and a divisive election.
“One of the clerks sent out an email that said, ‘May the force be with you,’” Hafen said. “And we certainly hope that’s the case.”