After Trump attacks by-mail voting, Utah drop boxes that avoid Postal Service become extra popular

With the election a week away, the U.S. Postal Service says now is the time to mail Utah ballots to ensure on-time delivery. But concern about mail handling is making the use of special drop boxes by county clerks — which entirely avoid the Postal Service — especially popular.

“We heard from a couple of counties that about 60% of the ballots coming back in are through drop boxes,” where county clerk employees collect ballots directly, said Justin Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she even had crews from her office picking up ballots on Sunday from her county’s 21 drop boxes at city halls and other sites “to ensure they wouldn’t get full” because they have been so popular.

“I’m sure that’s because voters are worried about the mail because of all the things that they’ve heard,” Swensen said.

That, of course, includes President Donald Trump repeatedly railing against voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic — including saying that it would make this year’s elections “the most inaccurate and fraudulent in history.” The president also predicted that with this kind of voting, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Utah is among only a handful of states — and the only one that is heavily Republican — that have used by-mail voting for years. Most states have turned to it this year during the pandemic to allow voting that helps avoid long lines and spreading the coronavirus.

While the election seems generally to be going smoothly so far in her county, Swensen said some mail problems have occurred that might fuel more concern.

“There’s been some ballots that we’ve ordered that have gone out for delivery that haven’t yet arrived,” she said. “We know that they went out for delivery. So I’m trying to find out what the delay is.”

Voters can track the status of their ballot — including whether they have been mailed or received back by county clerks — at vote.utah.gov. Clerks can “spoil” originals and send out replacements, or allow in-person voting at early voting centers or Election Day voting centers. Vote.utah.gov also lists locations for drop boxes statewide, and sites for in-person early voting under the “How Can I Vote” category.

Lee said the popularity of drop boxes seems to increase every election, both in Utah and other states that have used by-mail voting for years.

“People know they go straight to election officials,” he said. “It’s simpler. You don’t worry about stamps or postmarks. You get it in the drop box, and you know you’re good to go.”

A regional spokesman for the Postal Service said Monday that it continues to stand by earlier advice that Utah voters should mail ballots a week before Election Day, or Tuesday, to ensure on-time delivery. But the Postal Service also says voters should also listen to advice from local election officials.

Lee is quick to point out that “under Utah law, it’s still certainly OK to vote by mail up to the day before Election Day” — Nov. 2 — as long as the ballot is properly postmarked by then. If voters miss that postmark deadline, they can still put ballots in drop boxes or drop them off at in-person Election Day voting centers.

Swensen said Salt Lake County is advising voters to mail ballots by Friday to ensure they have an appropriate postmark. “Putting it in their home mailbox on Monday probably will not do that,” she said.

Both Lee and Swensen say that mailing early is a good idea for a variety of reasons.

“The earlier people send in ballots, the more results we’ll have on election night,” Lee said. It also allows voters to track on vote.utah.gov to ensure clerks have received ballots, and it also gives a head start for clerks to fix any problems they find, such as someone forgetting to sign a ballot.

Swensen said such problems will still be addressed — allowing people to fix them and vote — throughout the seven- to 14-day canvass periods that various Utah counties have before certifying the election.

She adds she is a bit worried that Postal Service advice to mail ballots a week early might lead some voters to mistakenly believe if they fail to do so that they then cannot vote. She stresses that ballots properly postmarked on or before Nov. 2 will be counted as long as they arrive any time during her county’s 14-day canvass.

The lieutenant governor’s office reported on its website Monday that clerks have processed (verified and counted) 462,000 ballots — including 181,000 in Salt Lake County.

When ballots were first mailed out, Lee said Utah had about 1.6 million active registered voters — but another 80,000 registered before the final by-mail voter registration deadline on Friday. So he said he figures about 27.5% of active registered voters have already returned ballots.

Utahns who missed the Friday online registration deadline may still register at in-person early voting centers, or at voting centers on Election Day. Swensen said they must bring identification, plus proof of residence, such as a utility bill or some document with their address on it.

In-person early voting kicks into high gear this week. Lee said state law requires counties to provide it for at least four days before the election, so all have it available this week. Swensen said Salt Lake County has 13 in-person voting centers open this week.

“If you want to vote in person, we encourage people to use early voting to cut down on lines on Election Day,” Lee said.

Swensen also encourages using by-mail ballots when possible as the most safe and efficient option. She says voting in person on Election Day “should really be just for people who don’t have a ballot” because it was lost, or who need to register.

“Please don’t show up in person to vote, unless you really need to,” Swensen said.