No evidence of fraud in Utah’s midterm elections, but auditors say there‘s room to improve elections systems

The legislature’s independent auditors recommended that Utah adopt a pilot program to audit a percentage of ballots after the election to confirm the outcome.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voter drops off their ballot at Taylorsville City Hall, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

A deep dive into Utah’s vote-by-mail system found no evidence of fraud, widespread errors or systematic problems during the 2022 midterm elections. Additionally, legislative auditors found that the safeguards already in place are sufficient to thwart any attempts to undermine election integrity.

Still, independent investigators pointed out several areas that are in need of improvement.

Legislative leaders ordered the audit last December in the wake of Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud following his 2020 election loss. Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, argued the look would dispel any doubts about Utah’s voting system.

Auditors observed the 2022 primary election in all 29 of Utah’s counties. They found that Utah’s decentralized system, where individual counties oversee elections, creates a firewall that makes it extremely difficult to compromise a statewide or national election.

The final report also refuted one of the more outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding elections. Auditors examined election equipment in several counties and found no evidence that they are connected to the internet.

Utah’s decentralized system also has created a patchwork of procedures that vary from county to county, highlighting several issues ranging from needing to update voter registration rolls to standardizing signature verification.

The report found slight discrepancies between the reported number of ballots and the number of voters during this year’s midterm elections. The total number of ballots in question was fewer than 2,000 statewide. Nine counties had more votes than ballots, while 13 counties had more ballots than votes.

Those discrepancies may be alarming, but investigators concluded some errors are likely the result of clerical mistakes and recommended that the lieutenant governor’s office establish rules to standardize the process.

Another possible reason for the discrepancy between the number of votes and voters is how individual counties reconcile the number of ballots in their custody during the counting process.

Members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee zeroed in on the difference in the number of ballots and voters when the audit was made public Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m thankful that’s a low number,” Schultz, R-Hooper, said before asked Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson what was being done to fix that obvious issue.

“Clerks should be able to account for every single ballot or envelope in an election,” Henderson replied.

Ryan Cowley, Utah’s Director of Elections, noted that an error of about 300 votes in one county was the result of entering the wrong number into a computer, which was easily rectified.

“I think there’s a lot of those examples that if we dig deeper and push, eventually those clerks could rectify it,” Cowley said.

He added that the state started requiring clerks to certify the number of votes and voters “closely matched” when giving election materials to the state board of canvassers.

Clerks sort ballots into batches for easy counting, but there’s no statewide record-keeping procedure to ensure no ballots are removed or added to each batch. In one county, auditors discovered election workers would create new batches halfway through the counting process, making it difficult to track errors. A second county did not use a tracking sheet for batches, while another did not track ballots at all.

Auditors also said most of the records in Utah’s voter database are accurate but drew attention to several instances where efforts to maintain the accuracy of the state’s voter rolls vary from county to county and could be improved. They recommended more oversight from the lieutenant governor’s office.

Utah’s voter registration records are managed by a centralized system, the Voter Information and State Tracking Application, known as VISTA. By statute, the lieutenant governor’s office is responsible for referencing several different datasets to help maintain those records. Voters could move or die while new voters register with the state. County clerks are tasked with maintaining their voter records, but investigators found inconsistent use of tools to help them keep those lists up to date.

Seventeen counties in Utah have done maintenance on registration lists within the last year, and ten more counties have updated their databases sometime during the previous two years. However, one county has not updated the voter rolls since 2018, and another has not revised its list since 2014.

Auditors also found that the lieutenant governor’s office did not perform its legally required duty to ensure that deceased voters had been removed from the voter database, discovering that over 250 dead voters had not been removed.

The report also dinged Henderson’s office for not having enough staff to maintain the state’s voter registration list, noting that they rely on “one very knowledgeable individual” to manage the database.

“Any entity that has questions about VISTA turns to this person. This creates a heavy burden for this person with no backup support,” the report says, noting that Henderson’s office has hired an additional person to provide VISTA support.

Auditors also raised concerns that just five employees are responsible for overseeing elections in Utah, noting that surrounding states have many more staffers dealing with elections. The report also pointed out that the lieutenant governor’s office has experienced high turnover in employees who supervise elections and recommended that Henderson review staffing levels.

Henderson agreed that staffing levels in her office are not where they should be, and worried they would not be able to handle any new mandates from lawmakers.

“We’re spread about as thin as we can possibly be spread under these circumstances. Any new requirements from the Legislature would need to come with additional resources,” Henderson told the committee.

Henderson added that her office already provides election training for county clerks, but, according to Utah law, clerks are not required to attend the training.

“We can have all the training in the world. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink,” Henderson said.

State law requires county clerks to conduct a post-election audit, but that is only to ensure the election machines were operating correctly during the vote-counting process, not to verify the results are correct.

To that end, the report recommends adopting a pilot program to audit a percentage of ballots after the election to confirm the outcome, which, auditors say, would increase confidence in the accuracy of the results. The program, known as a risk-limiting audit, would adjust the number of ballots audited based on the margin of victory — a large election victory would require auditing fewer ballots, while closer races would audit more votes.

The report says several states have adopted some form of a post-election risk-limiting audit in recent years. Auditors conclude implementing a similar procedure in Utah would not put too much strain on the limited resources available to county election officials.

Auditors also suggested lawmakers develop improved standards for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots. Currently, Utah law says election workers should determine whether signatures on ballots correspond to state records by examining whether they are “substantially similar,” but offers no other guidance. That has led to some counties approaching signature verification more rigorously than others.

Taking steps to tighten up the state’s election procedures has become a more urgent issue, as next year more than half of county clerks in Utah will have less than two years on the job starting. Eight of 29 clerks in Utah will begin their first term in office in January. The report says developing clear standards for overseeing elections is critical given that level of inexperience.

Henderson’s office says they are working on a first-ever manual for election officials that they plan to distribute in early 2023.