If you were one of the thousands of Utahns who voted by tossing their ballot in a county drop box, it’s almost a certainty you were being filmed.
It’s a state requirement that has cost some counties thousands of dollars, with no clear sign of how the cameras protect Utah voters, according to Salt Lake County’s top elections official.
The cameras were presented by state lawmakers as an election safety measure and included in House Bill 313, which was signed into law following the 2022 Legislative session and went into effect in May. The law required each unattended ballot drop box to be under 24-hour video surveillance.
Though HB313 provided over $600,000 over the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years for Utah’s 29 counties to pay for additional drop boxes and cameras, some counties still have additional costs to stay in compliance.
Sherrie Swensen, Salt Lake County’s clerk of over 30 years, told The Salt Lake Tribune that her office has spent over $50,000 to purchase and install cameras on all 24 of the county’s ballot drop boxes. Swensen noted that, at the time, it was unclear how much of that amount the state was set to pay for.
While still in the process of wrapping up her final election before retirement, Swensen said the cameras worked as they should have during this year’s election cycle, but she doesn’t see much use for watching voters drop off their ballots.
“I think (the cameras) really don’t accomplish anything,” Swensen said. “They’re expensive and I don’t see that they’ve really had any accomplishments as far as what they provide.”
She added that HB313 didn’t spell out any requirements as far as how long counties are supposed to maintain the camera footage, so Salt Lake County will retain the footage like all other elections records, which she said is 22 months.
Though the cameras only start recording when it detects movement, the county’s 24 drop boxes have generated thousands of hours of footage.
Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch estimates his office spent roughly $29,500 of the county’s money for the cameras, which doesn’t include the funds allocated by the state. He said some cities needed to upgrade their camera systems, which the county reimbursed to the cities.
Hatch said the county initially didn’t think they had to buy cameras. However, the drop boxes at county libraries needed new cameras after he realized the current cameras were recording library patrons, which is not allowed.
Weber County had to buy six cameras in total, Hatch said, five for each of the county’s libraries and another to be installed over the drop box located at the Weber Center, where county offices are located. Hatch also estimated the cameras cost $55 per month for data usage and the account used to maintain the footage.
Hatch said he also took it upon himself to survey all of Utah’s 29 counties after HB313 passed, and 19 counties responded.
On average, Hatch estimated, the 19 counties spent around $1,148 per camera, and the average one-time equipment cost for each county was $7,792. However, Hatch also found that three smaller counties who replied didn’t spend any money on cameras, as they either already had surveillance cameras at the drop boxes or the drop boxes weren’t unattended.
However, at least one county hasn’t spent much to be compliant with state law.
Brian McKenzie, the chief deputy of the Davis County Clerk/Auditor’s Office who oversees the county’s elections, told The Tribune the county was able to cut down on labor and upkeep costs by coordinating with the county’s IT department, which installed the cameras. Davis County’s main cost was for the cameras, McKenzie said, though most of those costs were covered by the money allocated by the state.
“So (there was a) fairly small fiscal impact to the county just because of our circumstances,” McKenzie said. “We had very few cameras to install. We were able to install them ourselves. And we were able to receive that money back from the state.”
McKenzie, who has held tours of its election office to help people understand the ballot counting process, said maintenance is always a lingering cost, but it’s cost of doing business to provide security to the county’s elections.
Swensen said that some constituents have been concerned about people putting numerous fake ballots into drop boxes in order to influence elections, something Swensen says is ridiculous, saying fake ballots, “could never make it through our system.”
The conspiracy theory of dumping fake ballots into drop boxes is the premise for the discredited film, “2,000 Mules,” which baselessly claims organizations paid people to fill drop boxes with fraudulent ballots in states won by President Joe Biden in 2020.
At least one future county clerk in Utah believes that fraud has plagued recent elections.
In May, Aaron Davidson, the Republican nominee who was recently elected as Utah County’s future clerk, spoke at a panel prior to a screening of the film in South Jordan.
Swensen told The Tribune the motion-activated cameras did catch something interesting that she wasn’t expecting.
“I got a film of a spider building its web,” Swensen said with a laugh. “That was the funny one, that (the camera) activated because of a spider ... we kind of laughed about that one.”