Midterm elections are just around the corner and there is a lot on the ballot this year. That’s why KUER put out a call to our listeners to send us any and all questions about voting to pose to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s top elections chief.
Below are excerpts of our Q-and-A, edited for length and clarity. Listen to an extended version on our politics podcast, 45 Days.
Nicole: Our first question comes from Susan who is one of our listeners in Salt Lake City. And she wanted to know about numbers. How many new voters have registered this year and how does that compare to previous midterm cycles?
Cox: Wow, I should know these numbers off the top of my head … 40,000 new voters have registered to vote. And the comparison is really pretty stunning. So let's go back four years ago to the last midterm, we had about 2,000 people registered to vote in that same time period. So it's really amazing — we're up like over 1,000 percent or whatever the crazy number is — so clearly there is an interest in the midterms that we have not seen for a long, long time.
Julia: So let's talk about what's actually on the ballot this year. We got a lot of questions about ballot propositions and constitutional amendments. So, right off the bat, what's the difference between a constitutional amendment and a proposition?
Cox: So we actually have three different types of questions on the ballot, so let's start with constitutional amendments. Constitutional amendments usually get on the ballot when the legislature puts them on the ballot. So what happens is the legislature — it has to be two-thirds of the legislature to get a constitutional change proposed. We have three of those that happened this year, so the legislature back in the general session said these are things we want to change. Two-thirds of them supported it, now it’s on the ballot. Now, the voters of Utah get to decide. So there's three of those and they're A, B and C.
And then we have ballot initiatives. Our Constitution provides an opportunity for regular Utahns — for We the People — to actually pass laws, and this is how we do it. The legislature puts the rules in place on how that works. But, under the current rules, you have to go out and you have to gather lots of signatures — about 115,000 signatures. Then if you get enough signatures, you get to be on the ballot and you get to pass a law. And we have three of those, so Prop 2, Prop 3 and Prop 4 are the three initiatives that are on the ballot.
This year we have a third category and that is nonbinding question number 1. These are very rare … it's basically a poll. The legislature wants to see before they pass a law what Utahns think about something. And in this case a tax increase it goes to schools and a little bit to roads and so they put it on there just to see what people think.
Julia: We had a question from Nathan Waite of Layton about what happens to a proposition after it passes. He says, “My question is related to propositions in the legislature. If voters approve Proposition 2, can state legislature revise or override that at the upcoming special session on medical marijuana?”
Cox: So yeah, this is something that people don't understand. We're passing a law just like the legislature, which means that those laws can be changed after their passed. Just like if the legislature passed a law last year they can go change it this year. That is legal, that is the way it can be done. It's not uncontroversial — that seems to be how compromise works in politics. … I suspect we will see some changes to all of them. And some of them are just changes that have to be made just to be implemented not major changes — although there could be major changes as well.
Nicole: That's the propositions and the amendments, and we talked a little bit about nonbinding opinion. We got a question from our listener Bryan Peterson who says that [the nonbinding question] was supposed to be about education, but he says there's this little phrase added in there that says local roads. “How and why did that get in there?” he asks. “Roads and education seem to be pretty remotely related if at all” and he said it seems sneaky. So, Lieutenant Governor, is this sneaky?
Cox: Well, depends on what your definition of sneaky is. … So 70 percent of it goes to education, 30 percent of it goes to roads. The whole concept here is twofold: one, if you get money directly to education obviously that's going to help education. If you give more money directly to roads as well, that's also going to help education … and we desperately need more money for roads, especially in our cities and towns. Both of these benefit education — one of them directly, and one of them indirectly
Julia: We should mention your boss Gov. Herbert is supporting this is, correct?
Julia: Speaking of casting ballots, we got two questions about prepaid postage. Here's one of them.
“Hi, I’m Chantelle Gossner. I'm going to school in Logan, Utah, and I want to know why the state doesn't provide postage for mail-in ballots? Also, is there anything that I as a voter can do to change that?”
Cox: Go, Aggies! Thanks for calling in from Logan, Utah. So one of the things that a lot of people don't realize about elections and yes, I do oversee elections for the state, but every election is a county election. And so many of these decisions are county decisions and so it is county by county.
Many counties do provide prepaid postage. Salt Lake County is one of those. And then there are several that don't — Utah County does not. Cache County does not. And it is something that we are very interested in getting changed of course it costs money. …And yes, Chantelle, as a voter what you can do is call your county clerk, first and foremost, and your county commissioners because they have the budget, they have the purse. … And then talk to your legislator as well. And let's see if we can't get that done. I would like to see it prepaid across the across the state.
Nicole: A lot of voters have already filled out and returned their mail in ballots including one of our listeners, JT, in Salt Lake City. He wrote in to ask us if there is a way to track your ballot online so you know when it has been counted.
Julia: Just like Domino's Pizza, you can watch your pizza being made.
Cox: Yes, there is. At vote.utah.gov. You enter your information there and it will show you your ballot status. So if you've mailed it in. The next thing you know the clerk has it. Then you'll see when it's processed and counted, and you keep track of that.
Julia: Top questions for county clerks are those worst-case scenarios: What happens if I spill coffee or Diet Coke on my ballot, or what if it's torn? Will my ballot still count?
Cox: As long as county clerks can decipher what your vote is, it will count. Absolutely, 100 percent. Even if the machine rejects it, then we count them by hand. If your ballot is spoiled in some way, you can go and get another one ... [or] show up on election day and cast your ballot at a polling location.
Nicole: OK, election security. What do you want to tell voters about election security in Utah in 2018?
Cox: Well, I want people to know that elections have never been more secure than they are right now. Despite what you're hearing, despite what you're reading out there. There are some states that I probably couldn't say that about, but one of the things that we do right and first of all what's interesting is — old is kind of new again, by having paper ballots, by having mail in ballots, it is actually more secure than the voting machines. We have very few voting machines that will be used in this election, and even those voting machines in Utah are more secure than anywhere else because they are not connected to each other and they're not connected to the Internet in any way.
And because they have a paper printout, which is important. There are some states that don't invest in that. We did. Very early on we said we're not going to do this without a paper printout. We want to be able to go back, in every machine, look at every vote and make sure that the electronic version of that vote matches the paper version of that vote. So you're going to be fine, you don't have to worry about the Russians hacking our elections. And you don't have to worry about millions of illegals voting illegally in our election.