Sherrie Swensen wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Since her election as Salt Lake County clerk in 1990, she has championed voting rights, pushing to make registration easier and promoting more convenient ways to cast ballots.
After more than 30 years at the helm, the 73-year-old Swensen is calling it quits. As she prepares to leave office in January to pursue more family time and quench a thirst for travel, she says any eligible adult who wants to register to vote in Utah’s most populous county can make it happen.
“I don’t feel like they’re being left out because they didn’t know or couldn’t access it,” she said. “I feel like we’ve made it so convenient in Salt Lake County that it’s very available to anyone and everyone who wants to participate, and that was always my goal.”
When she took office, mail-in registration forms were not immediately available, but she changed that, making them accessible in hundreds of places across the county.
She did outreach at high schools and car shows and boat shows. Her office developed an application that spurred statewide online voter registration and distributed posters with scannable codes so residents could register on their smartphones.
Her tenure in the clerk’s office has been an anomaly. A Democrat in a jurisdiction that tends to elect Republicans to lower-profile offices, Swensen has cruised to convincing victories eight consecutive times, giving her the title of longest-serving Democratic officeholder in Salt Lake County government.
Despite holding a partisan office, Swensen said she has never carried out her duties to favor one political party over another.
“I’ve always made sure that every voter and every candidate was treated equally and with no deference to party affiliation,” she said. “And I think that’s the most important thing.”
‘Naturally the target’
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, not every Republican would agree with that assertion.
In 2010, her GOP challenger, Jeremy Votaw, criticized her oversight of polling locations when a Kearns site in Democratic state Sen. Karen Mayne’s west-side district displayed the name of her late husband, former state Sen. Ed P. Mayne.
Swensen said at the time that she didn’t know about the name change but covered up the senior center’s sign in response to critics. The Lieutenant Governor’s Office found no wrongdoing.
Votaw also argued Swensen was promoting herself when a notice attached to early-voting machines contained a seal for her office with her name on it. Swensen said it was a mistake and that she had told her staff not to include her name on the notice.
At least one counterpart on the other side of the aisle said he hasn’t noticed partisanship influencing Swensen’s job performance.
“I only have snippets of how I see Sherrie, but she’s really had to toe the line as a Democratic clerk in a heavily Republican state,” Weber County Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch said. “She is naturally the target, and frankly it’s kind of unfortunate, because I think she really wants what’s best for the voters and wants to do what’s right. That’s the feeling I’ve gotten in working with her”
Hatch, a Republican, said he looks to Swensen to see how to do things better.
He called her a pillar of the elections community, saying her office has set an example for how other large Utah counties could process ballots, marriage licenses and passports.
A rush of same-sex marriages
Swensen’s office had a crash course in issuing a crush of marriage licenses in December 2013, when Judge Robert Shelby issued a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Couples immediately flocked to Swensen’s office on the Friday the ruling came down.
“They were dashing into the office,” Swensen recalled, “and we were working as hard as we could to accommodate those licenses.”
The following Sunday night, couples were already lining up in the cold outside the County Government Center to get their marriage licenses Monday.
“I was like, ‘Oh my word, we’ve got to do something to get them inside the building,’” Swensen said.
People lined up on every floor after the county opened the government center early in the morning, Swensen said, leading to her office issuing more than 350 licenses. Before that, she said, 90 licenses was considered a huge day.
To meet demand, Swensen’s staff canceled plans for Christmas parties, returned from vacation and worked late. Couples who received their licenses performed ceremonies in the atrium in what Swensen reflects on as “an amazing time.”
“The only thing I’m sad about,” she said, “is I didn’t have any videos of it.”
Putting voters first
Swensen said it’s the personal touch and extra effort she brings to the job that helped her gain popularity among voters. Being the chief administrator of elections, passports and marriage licenses does not afford the luxury of regular work hours.
She labored to set an example of dedication, spending time answering emails and phone calls personally, even late into the evening.
“That’s what I believe this job requires,” she said.
It’s the interaction with people, providing a public service and making a difference that she’s going to miss — so much so that it had given her pause about retirement.
“I’ve had a lot of second thoughts,” she said, “because I want it to continue in the way that it has to make sure that every citizen that our office serves gets what they need.”
She’s proud of the work she did outside the normal scope of her job and said operating within the system has allowed her to see its deficiencies.
A few months into her tenure, a woman brought her 14-year-old daughter from Texas to Utah to marry a 56-year-old man, something that was legal in the Beehive State at the time. She pushed to change the law, getting a bill sponsored in the Legislature to require court intervention before such marriages could occur.
More recently, she promoted a legislative change to the laws that govern access to voter records. Now, voters have the option to make information inaccessible to others.
But she is best known for using her position to make registering to vote more accessible and casting a ballot more convenient.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a fellow Democrat, said she admires and appreciates Swensen’s support of same-day voter registration, mail-in balloting and other initiatives that make voting easier.
“Sherrie is committed, knows the office inside and out,” Wilson said. “She’s been really great at reforming the office over the years.”
Putting her stamp on vote by mail
Swensen is not seeking reelection, but will serve out the remainder of her term. She’s eager to spend more time with her family, including two sons and eight grandchildren who are mostly adults. They’ve talked about traveling to Sweden and Norway, where her family has roots.
Her departure comes as voting rights have been thrust into the national debate, and as efforts in Utah and elsewhere have sought to restrict mail-in balloting.
Those who raise concerns about mail-in balloting in Salt Lake County either don’t know about the process or are deliberately spreading misinformation, Swensen said. Voting by mail, she said, is secure and has not resulted in fraud in the county.
“It is really of concern to me to see those individuals on a national level, and even on a local level, try to make it less accessible for people to vote, because the participation by all of the citizens conveniently is what I believe makes our democracy work,” Swensen said. “To do otherwise and try to put up barriers is contrary to democracy.”
Although some want to scale back access to voting, usually promoted in the name of election security, Swensen wants to stay the course, keeping in place the convenience of mail-in voting.
In the wake of the 2020 election, as political heat has turned up on election officials, Swensen said her office has faced criticism from a small number of people who don’t represent the sentiment of most Salt Lake County voters.
But Swensen insists the vitriol, sometimes rising to the level of threats, is not what led her to decide against chasing a ninth term.
“In fact, if anything,” she said, “that would have emboldened me to seek another term.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.