Utah sets record election turnout as voters adapt to coronavirus precautions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Voters at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

They placed ballots in the mail and in drop boxes scattered throughout the state. Some voted from their cars, others at government centers, schools, churches, the zoo and even the arena that normally hosts Utah Jazz games.

And they set a record.

More Utahns voted in 2020 than in any past election. Just how much more? That will take a few days to sort out.

In 2016, 1,152,369 Utahns cast a ballot, which was 82% of the active voters at that time.

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Utah clerks reported counting more than 1.2 million votes. Though, it should be pointed out that Utah’s population has grown in the past four years and so has interest in voting. In 2020, Utah has 1.68 million active registered voters, that is 280,000 more than four years ago.

Among those who voted Tuesday was Lana Athalye, who filled out her ballot from the bed of her bright blue Toyota Tacoma early Tuesday, parked in the Weber County Fairgrounds.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lana Athalye, 24, and fellow voters in Weber County, filled out their ballots in their cars in the parking lot of the Golden Spike Event Center in Ogden, Nov. 3, 2020.

She appreciated the precautions county officials took to keep large groups from gathering, increasing the risk that she or others could be exposed to the coronavirus.

“It’s gone pretty smoothly, considering COVID,” she said, her ballot in one hand, and her smartphone, which she was using to look up candidates, in the other.

Polling locations found creative ways to give people the chance to vote in-person. In Weber County, voters went into the county fairground building, got their ballots, then returned to their cars to fill it out. They dropped off their ballots on the drive out.

Poll workers were separated from voters with plexiglass, and everyone had to wear a face mask to get inside. First-time voters filling out provisional ballots were greeted with claps and cheers from poll workers.

Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch said that many of the voters casting their ballots Tuesday did so just because they preferred the process of voting in person, that it was something they’d always done.

For Athalye, she had to vote in person because she had just moved and didn’t get her ballot in time. She said she was particularly interested in te presidential election, and didn’t agree with the way the current administration has handled the pandemic. She’s worried about health care, and whether her rights to marry as a gay woman could be threatened.

She hopes that there will be a larger influx of young voters this year.

“People my age haven’t cared until recently,” she said.

In Davis County, residents voted Tuesday without leaving their cars.

“People have been pretty impressed with the process,” said Raegan Johnson, an election worker from Layton. “One person even compared it to drive-up service at Chick-Fil-A.”

Voters turned into the parking lot of the Legacy Events Center, wound through orange cones until they reached designated parking stall. An election worker scanned their driver license, before handing out a ballot. Voters then filled them out in a parking lot before driving them into a series of horse barns to place in a drop box.

In Salt Lake County, Joceline Sanchez said she is proud she helped much of her family figure out their ballots this year, then delivered their votes to the Sorenson Multicultural Center.

The 24-year-old youth activist from Glendale said she’d been involved in social-justice protests all summer and that as a Black Latina, she was “really excited for my community. I see a lot of people coming out to vote.”

“This election is going to affect marginalized communities the most,” said Sanchez, a sociology major at Utah Valley University who works at a youth treatment facility. “I’m just really proud of my neighborhood and I just want to improve it.”

Sanchez said she voted for Joe Biden.

“I’m not going to vote for a leader that puts down my people and stands for racism, hate and bigotry,” she said. “I am not going to vote for someone that isn’t looking out for the country as a whole.”

At about the same time, Ammaron Taula, 33, walked out of the same polling station and snapped a selfie at the entrance, a smile ear to ear. He said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — his first presidential ballot — but backed President Donald Trump this year.

Taula and M. Vida Tuitama-Hafoka said they’d been involved in several voter turnout events in recent months among their Pacific Islander neighbors in west Salt Lake City, including drums circles and dance performances.

“We entertain and we explain to the Polynesian community that it’s really, really important to vote,” Tuitama-Hafoka said. “Especially with what’s going on in our country and our freedoms.”

She said she, too, backed Trump over his stance in opposition to abortion, for his hard line on the Black Lives Matter movement — which she called “divisive” — and for the sense of U.S strength he projects to the world.

“America has got to be like it was back in the day,” Tuitama-Hafoka said, hearkening to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “We need order.”

Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists gathered Tuesday outside of the Salt Lake County government complex, a visible reminder of the contentious times. A total of 100 people, some standing on the Trump side openly carrying firearms, chanted back and forth. When the Black Lives Matter group shouted, “Vote him out!” The other side responded, “Four more years.” When those who opposed Trump yelled, “Black Lives Matter” the others said, “All lives matter.”

Another unusual sight? Nordstrom at City Creek Mall and the downtown Salt Lake City Harmon’s grocery boarded up their windows at the street level, worried that demonstrations could turn violent in the days to come.

Tribune reporter Sara Tabin contributed to this article.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Plywood covers windows at Nordstrom in Salt Lake City on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.