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Updates via NPR: Biden orders a security review after the assassination attempt on Trump

Ahead of the primary, Utah election workers still see simmering tensions

A ballot drop box at the Anderson-Foothill Library in Salt Lake City, June 3, 2024.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
A ballot drop box at the Anderson-Foothill Library in Salt Lake City, June 3, 2024.

Reported threats and harassment toward election workers have increased by 8% nationally since 2023 according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And Utah isn’t immune.

“There's obviously an increasing amount of vitriol, things like that, towards our county clerks and towards election officials, most notably online,” said state Director of Elections Ryan Cowley.

While Cowley isn’t able to quantify how much of an uptick there’s been here, he said comments to election workers have “sharpened quite a bit in tone.” He also said certain counties have “higher concentration of comments” but he declined to specify which ones.

Those threats are partly to blame for a high turnover rate of county clerks statewide. Cowley said “well over” 20 clerks have resigned from the position since 2020 and “some counties, like Cache County, that are on their fourth county clerk.”

Some, he said, retired early “given the climate” and others left the job because it’s “just not quite what they thought it would be.”

If the state elections office comes across a threatening comment, Cowley said his team “will try and vet it out” and contact the county clerk’s office to “make sure people are safe and protected.” But largely, security and the method to protect election workers is left up to the county.

And an extra set of hands is needed in some counties more than others.

In Salt Lake County, for example, Clerk Lannie Chapman said there has been more rhetoric “questioning the veracity” of what election workers do and how the public is struggling to “trust them.”

“Which is really, really sad because a lot of these people are retirees, volunteers that come in to help us.”

There have been instances of outside actions that have made temporary workers, especially at the county’s 28 ballot drop boxes, uneasy. Since 2021, Chapman’s office has partnered with the sheriff's department to pick up and transport ballots back to where they are counted.

“We were having observers, which they're allowed to go and observe at drop boxes, but they were then following and recording our temp workers,” she said. “And that definitely made them feel uncomfortable, to the point where they just did not feel like safe doing that at all.”

Salt Lake County also uses the sheriff's deputies as an extra pair of eyes inside the ballot center when observers are present to “make sure that everybody's doing what they should do and nobody's touching what they shouldn't be touching.”

“We haven't seen that yet. But again, we take our job very seriously,” Chapman said. “We want to make sure that when we take care, custody and control of these ballots, that they stay in our care, custody and control.”

These heightened security measures, Chapman said, are the new normal for election workers. She added they also do training with staff. If a worker is ever uncomfortable, there are certain people they’re supposed to contact.

“At this point, I feel like that's been sufficient. But if we need to add extra layers of protection, we're willing and able to. But we haven't gotten to that point yet,” she said.

In smaller counties, like Grand and Sanpete, clerks said security threats against poll workers haven’t been much of a concern.

Gabriel Woytek said he isn’t privy to any threats or harassment claims directed toward his staff and because Grand County’s population is less than 10,000, they also don’t use volunteers in most elections. Woytek is aware of the national rhetoric around election workers and said that can act as a motivator.

“I think it just challenges us to just do a really airtight job in running elections and making sure all of our T's are crossed [and] our I’s are dotted.”

Woytek also said they try to make the process as transparent as possible.

If a resident comes into the office to update their voter registration, Voytek said his deputy county clerk will often turn her screen to show the voter “exactly what she's doing in the database” to help eliminate any concerns they may have.

The county has added security cameras in the vault where ballots are stored. They also put cameras where ballots are being counted and processed.

“We've always got a camera basically on the ballot, every step of the way,” he said.

Utah’s primary election is June 25, 2024. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Take note of Utah’s ID requirements and find your polling location at vote.utah.gov.

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