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County clerks in Utah are taking longer to process ballots. Here’s why

A voter drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in downtown Salt Lake City, Oct. 31, 2022.
Brian Albers
A voter drops off a mail-in ballot at a drop box in downtown Salt Lake City, Oct. 31, 2022.

A new Utah election law is impacting how quickly county clerks process ballots.

During the 2022 session, the Utah Legislature passed HB387, a requirement that county clerks post how many ballots they’ve received daily during the election on their websites.

And once Election Day passes, clerks then must update daily to reflect what stage of the verification process ballots are in and how many are challenged. The Davis County Clerk’s Office, Weber County and Utah County are ahead of the game and have already started doing so.

But no county clerk’s office is expected to have the additional data available to the public until the Friday following the election, which is Nov. 11.

The counting takes longer because the election staff has to sift through all the mail-in ballots, go through security processes, like signature verification, and update the data posted online.

Some election employees are pulling longer days in order to follow the law. Washington County Clerk Susan Lewis said her team usually starts at 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave the office until about 8 or 9 p.m.

“Before we can leave at the end of the day, we've got to get all of these phone calls and texts and emails sent out,” she said, “because the next day we're going to have a whole new batch of a few thousand ballots.”

In the past, county clerks had the ballot information internally but weren’t required to publish a breakdown until the law was enacted this election cycle.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen called the law “an extra step.” In order to not fall too far behind, her office opted to purchase two machines that count the ballot envelopes received on a daily basis. If they hadn’t bought the machines, the elections staff would have had to hand count received ballots.

Swensen said the office will really start to feel the impact of the law after Election Day.

“In 2016, 2018 [and] 2020, we received 100,000 plus ballots on Election Day,” she said. “We got a lot of work to do processing those ballots in that two-week canvasing period.”

Since many voters wait until the last minute to send in their ballots, she expects it to be even harder to accommodate the state law within the two-week canvasing period. However, Swensen doesn’t know yet how far behind it will set them following Nov. 8.

State Elections Deputy Director Shelly Jackson speculates the new law is contributing to the perceived low voter turnout. She’s talked to a handful of county clerk offices and they believe the slower process is making it look as if fewer people are voting.

Jackson believes county clerks will catch up on processing ballots and she expects turnout to match the 2018 midterm elections when a little more than 75% of all registered Utahns voted.

Then again, turnout is “really driven by what’s on the ballot,” Jackson noted.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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