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Officials worry Election Day may bring 'unprecedented lines' at limited polling locations

SALT LAKE CITY — Local election officials were buckling down Monday for a busy Election Day, worried hundreds of thousands of last-minute voters may jam up limited polling places.

"What we may see is unprecedented lines," warned David Magleby, a political science professor at BYU.

As of Monday, statewide turnout lingered right around 40 percent of Utah's 1.4 million active voters. Because election officials estimate statewide turnout to reach 70 percent, more than 400,000 ballots could be cast in the final hours of Election Day.

"Judging from the lower turnout, I think some counties will be very busy (Tuesday)," State Elections Director Mark Thomas said.

It's the first presidential year most of Utah — 21 of 29 counties — is holding by-mail elections, meaning those counties will be hosting a fraction of the number of polls compared with traditional elections.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said even though there will be 37 vote centers in the county open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, they are not meant to replace the hundreds of traditional polling locations used in previous presidential elections.

"What I'm concerned about is people will try to use our vote centers as traditional polling places, and they're not intended for that," Swensen said.

The vote centers are meant for voters who did not receive a ballot, lost their ballot, need an audio ballot, or need to vote in person, she said.

"We're trying to save as much room as we can on Election Day for those people," Thomas said. "If you have your paper ballot, don't wait in line. Just turn it in (at a drop box) and save that spot in line for someone who might need it."

Swensen said Salt Lake County has 48 percent voter turnout so far, with 247,000 ballots cast, but she's expecting nearly 80 percent of active registered voters, meaning more than 150,000 county voters could be turning up to the polls or mailing their ballots late.

Concerned about the possible lines, Swensen said she considered adding two additional "super vote centers" — one at the Maverick Center in West Valley City and one at South Towne Mall in Sandy.

Swensen said county officials decided against it because notices for a parks and recreation bond had already been sent out that included a list of polling locations, "so we were stuck."

Salt Lake County was able to add 100 more voting machines, 20 more poll workers and 23 "line managers" at existing vote centers, listed on slco.org. The additional resources cost the county's election office roughly $20,000 more.

The line managers will be helping voters check their registration status and direct them to a drop box if they already have their by-mail ballots filled out.

As for by-mail voters, Swensen urged them not to mail their ballots if they hadn't done so by Monday.

That's because vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked by the day before Election Day, and some ballots placed in mailboxes Monday may not make it to the post office for postmarking until Tuesday.

If voters still have their by-mail ballots in hand Tuesday morning, they must be dropped off at a designated drop boxes scattered throughout vote-by-mail counties. Salt Lake County has 15 drive-by drop box locations, listed on slco.org. For more details in other counties, visit vote.utah.gov.

Magleby said the late turnout could be attributed to Republicans "sitting on their ballots." Democrats are showing a slightly higher early turnout rate: 45 percent of active voters to the GOP's 40 percent.

"I think it's because they're uncertain about how to vote for president," the political science professor said. "They know it's especially important because Utah could be important for electoral votes. There is a lot weighing on Utah, but we're not used to being a consequential state in a presidential race."

Magleby said the fact that Utah is a toss-up state for the first time in decades should lead to higher turnout, but he doesn't anticipate rates to top Utah's 80 percent turnout in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the GOP nominee.

"It is possible that some Republican voters are so undecided or conflicted, they won't vote at all," Magleby said.

Late turnout could also mean Tuesday night results — a first round expected to be released shortly after polls close at 8 p.m. — may be inconclusive in close races, Swensen said.

Because last-minute by-mail ballots could still be making their way to clerks' offices Tuesday night, Swensen said there's also no telling how many outstanding ballots will still need to be counted.

Results won't be final until counties complete canvassing on Nov. 22.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1