Mail-in ballots: Salt Lake County a model system says County Clerk
Sep 14, 2020 03:52PM
By Heather Lawrence
The ballot drop box at the Sandy Senior Center near 9400 South and 1300 East is one of 20 across Salt Lake County, and an alternative for those who don’t want to mail their ballots. (Heather Lawrence/City Journals)
By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen and her team have been fielding many calls about mail-in ballots and the possibility of fraud. Despite the national news and concerns, Swensen wants people to know the system we’ve used for years is “safe, secure and efficient.”
“Since I took office in 1991, I’ve been working on making voting more accessible, and that includes mail-in ballots. Mail-in voting has been in the news, and I want people to know that in Salt Lake County we’ve been doing this for a long time, and it works,” said Swensen, who lives in Sandy.
“Random ballots cannot be produced by just anyone. The idea being circulated that ballots could be printed by Russians, or in living rooms by anyone, is ridiculous,” Swensen said.
Swensen’s longevity in her job has given her many years and many elections to develop mail-in ballots. She even designed the envelope with the required voter’s signature over the seal.
“We mail out a ballot to active registered voters. Every ballot mailed has a ballot ID number assigned, which correlates to the voter for whom it is ordered. If a voter asks to have another ballot sent because they didn't receive it, or it was lost or ruined, the first ballot ordered for that voter is spoiled/canceled. The new ballot has a different ID number,” Swensen said.
Ballots are run through a series of human- and machine-operated steps. Each step ensures that signatures are matched, secrecy is maintained, the vote is counted and the computer-generated ID number recorded.
“If someone tried to prepare bogus ballot packets, they would not pass through our system and would not be accepted and counted. Those circulating these rumors do not understand the vote-by-mail process or do not want voters to have the convenience of voting by mail,” Swensen said.
Swensen also addressed the argument that the U.S. Postal Service could play a role in fraud or may slow down the process of tabulating votes.
“The cutbacks make me concerned. [USPS has] always been very responsive and treated [the ballots] well. They care about the service they provide to us. We use postage paid envelopes. We can track things through the USPS. If there’s a concerted effort trying to make it harder for the [Postal Service], that’s a concern to me.
“And if people don’t feel comfortable sending their ballot through the mail, we have 20 drop boxes located throughout the valley,” Swensen said.
The mail-in ballot program started as a permanent absentee option for seniors. “By 2013, we offered it to all registered voters, and only two cities opted out. In 2016, we conducted our first major elections by mail, and in 2017 all cities wanted to do it,” Swensen said.
Not only did the ballots work for security purposes, they increased voter turnout overall. “We found that the percentage of turnout was so much better. In 2018, Salt Lake County had an 80% turnout rate for voters, and 88% of those were by mail,” Swensen said.
Voting in person is always an option, though with more social gathering restrictions in place this year, Swensen hopes as many people as possible use mail-in ballots.
Getting a ballot in the mail doesn’t mean that someone can’t vote in person. Even if you were to drop your ballot in a ballot box or send it in through the mail, if you vote in person in addition to that, you’ll only be counted once.
Swensen offers tours of the ballot process to anyone who’s interested. “We have had lawmakers, the Lt. Governor’s staff, the state auditor’s staff, media, political parties, candidates and even international visitors tour our processes. They come away impressed with our system and the security we have in place,” Swensen said.
Election Day is Tues., Nov. 3. The voting schedule is posted on www.got-vote.org or www.slco.org/clerk/elections. Vote by mail ballots will be mailed the week of Oct. 12. If you haven’t received yours by Oct. 20, call the Clerk’s office at 385-468-7400 or email them at [email protected].
Swensen said that most issues with voting have to do with confusion, not fraud. Most of them can be cleared up ahead of time by visiting the website. Voters can make updates to their registration, and review instructions about things like who can sign your ballot or what to do if you accidentally put your ballot in your spouse’s envelope.
Poll workers are also still needed on Election Day. “We will be hiring poll workers and staff, so if people are interested, they can go to got-vote @slc.org. It’s a long day, and you need to have some technical skills. But you’re trained and paid, and if anyone’s interested we’d love to hear from them,” Swensen said.
The bottom line for Swensen: increase accessibility for everyone who’s eligible to vote.
“It’s extremely important to me that people get out to vote. For all the years I’ve been doing this, it was always about getting people to register—going to high schools, going to senior centers and other events.
“We want to make it simple for every person who’s eligible to register and cast a vote. It shouldn’t just be left to those that have the means to figure it out. That’s what makes democracy work—being accessible to everyone who has the right to vote,” Swensen said.