These efforts could increase voter access, protect ballot drop boxes in Utah

The bill would create parameters for when ballot drop boxes can be removed and allow mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day to be counted.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brett Jensen drops his ballot in the drop box at the River's Bend Senior Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

San Juan County voters saw ballot drop boxes removed early without notification during the 2022 midterm election. Utah Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, is trying to prevent that from happening again and expand the time period mail-in ballots would count in an election.

The freshman senator’s legislation would narrow when local election officials can remove ballot drop boxes and require them to notify voters and the lieutenant governor’s office.

The bill, SB142, the Ballot Delivery Amendments, also proposes allowing mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day to be tallied.

“I’m running this is to make voting more accessible for people, you know, to make sure every vote is counted,” Blouin said.

Under the current Utah code, a local election officer, such as a county clerk, can authorize two or more election workers to remove a ballot drop box at any time with no requirements to notify voters of the change.

But if Blouin’s bill passes, drop boxes can only be removed in certain circumstances and local election officials would be required to inform voters and the lieutenant governor’s office.

The legislation would allow the boxes to be picked up if the election office lacks the resources to remove them after polls close or if the removal is essential to protect the ballots deposited.

Under these circumstances, if a drop box is removed, election officials must notify the lieutenant governor’s office, post an update on the election officer’s website and post a notice at the box’s former location. Voters must also be provided with information for the nearest drop box.

Blouin said he decided to bring this to the legislature after learning about drop boxes being removed early in San Juan County.

Last election cycle, multiple drop boxes in or near the Navajo Nation were removed before Election Day by election officials without residents being notified, some being removed days before the election, The Tribune reported in December.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission declined to comment due to an ongoing investigation.

Because county residents were not informed that some drop boxes had been picked up, this led to some confusion about where voters could take their ballots.

Lyman Duncan, San Juan County clerk/auditor, told The Tribune on Wednesday he feels the county’s story about what happened last election “wasn’t told well enough.”

Removing some drop boxes early was necessary, Duncan told The Tribune in December, because the clerk’s office didn’t have the staff to collect them after polls closed on Election Day. He added the county also provided more polling locations than usual due to a delay in early in-person voting.

The bill was presented in the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee on Feb. 2, where Blouin introduced a substitute to remove a provision that would have required counties to fund prepaid postage for mail-in ballots.

The committee voted to hold the bill due because of opposition to changing the last day mail-in ballots could be postmarked, another item in the legislation, and to allow the senator to work on the bill’s language.

During the committee, Whit Cook with the Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative political group, spoke against the bill. Cook argued allowing mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day would extend the ballot counting process.

Salt Lake County Clerk Lannie Chapman, who presented the bill with Blouin, said tabulating ballots postmarked on Election Day would not significantly impact the county’s ability to process ballots since they begin processing before Election Day.

Currently, mail-in ballots must be postmarked the day before the election to be counted.

In Salt Lake County, about one percent of mail-in ballots received in the 2022 primary election were postmarked on or after Election Day, preventing them from being tallied, Chapman told The Tribune. She said her office estimates a majority of these ballots were postmarked on Election Day.

“Some of these races are decided by less than 100 votes, dozens of votes in cases,” Blouin told The Tribune. “And so I mean, it’s a real impact and I think it’s sad that there’s not the support to count every ballot out there.”

Blouin hopes to bring the bill back to the committee by the end of this week. Because he received no opposition about clarifying rules on dropbox removal, Blouin said there’s a possibility he may introduce a substitute or separate bill that only addresses that issue.

The freshman senator also said he wants to revisit providing all Utah voters with prepaid postage for their ballots, something he had in the first version of the bill but removed.

Blouin said he removed this part of the bill because it would have required counties to come up with the funding, something he said various county officials didn’t support.

Some counties, like Salt Lake County, already offer prepaid postage, but other counties do not.

Instead, Blouin said he may explore another substitute that would require the state, not the counties, to provide the money for prepaid postage on mail-in ballots.

In a statement attributed to Ryan Cowley, election director for the lieutenant governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office has taken a “neutral position” on the legislation.

Another bill regarding ballot drop boxes, HB347, would make taking, concealing, removing or destroying a ballot drop box or its contents a third-degree felony. The current penalty is a class A misdemeanor.

“As long as we’re going to do (mail-in voting) let’s make sure that our elections are as secure as they can be and that the citizens of Utah feel that when they drop a ballot in that box it’s as safe as … if they voted at their county clerk’s office,” said Rep. Michael Peterson who is sponsoring the legislation.

HB347 passed through committee on Wednesday with a 7-3 vote.