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New law requires more updates on election results

Thanks to a new law taking effect just in time for Tuesday's primary elections, anxious candidates and voters following tight races may not have to endure a two-week wait to learn the outcome.
Thanks to a new law taking effect just in time for Tuesday's primary elections, anxious candidates and voters following tight races may not have to endure a two-week wait to learn the outcome.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to a new law taking effect just in time for Tuesday's primary elections, anxious candidates and voters following tight races may not have to endure a two-week wait to learn the outcome.

Previously, state law prohibited clerks from releasing any updated results after election night until an official canvass. But now, with a record number of counties holding vote-by-mail elections this year, clerks are required to update vote counts when they're counted.

That means Utahns can expect to see another round of results on the state's website between noon and 3 p.m. Friday, when clerks are required to send their updates to the lieutenant governor's office.

Next week, more updates will be released during the same time period Tuesday and Friday before clerks finalize results July 12.

The Utah Legislature passed HB21 with widespread support earlier this year after voters waited anxiously to know the winner of two tight races during the last November election: the Salt Lake City mayor's race and Proposition 1 in Salt Lake County.

With thousands of last-minute vote-by-mail ballots still making their way to clerks, election officials deemed both races too close to call on Election Day.

"Traditionally, people are fairly used to having a pretty clear picture about what happened on election night, but there could be some close races," said Justin Lee, the state's deputy elections director.

"It'll be good information for the candidates, especially those races that could switch," Lee said. "On the flip side, it may just be a little more nerve-wracking if those races stay close for the next two weeks, but it's probably better to know something rather than nothing."

Twenty of Utah's 29 counties are holding vote-by-mail elections this year, and elections officials won't know how many ballots could remain uncounted after polls close Tuesday night.

Nearly 17 percent of Utah's registered voters had cast roughly 213,000 ballots as of Monday, according to the state Election's Office. That's already approaching a primary turnout high of just over 20 percent, when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012.

Clerks across the state supported the law change last year after lawmakers adjusted the bill to only require results to be released on days they are counted, not every day. Election officials usually collect ballots in batches and only tabulate after verification.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen and Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson said their offices are prepared for the law change, which they said could increase workload on some days, but not by a drastic amount.

Even though Utah County isn't holding a vote-by-mail election, Thompson said he still expects his office will still have to count a fair amount of absentee ballots in the coming weeks.

"Being an elected official myself, I know nothing is more nerve-wracking than waiting for those results to come in," he said. "For tight races, you're always just dying to know, so if it helps to be more transparent, I'm all for it. Regardless of the extra time it takes, the important thing is that we do things right."

Swensen said Millcreek's primaries likely will have some close races — with nine mayoral candidates and 24 City Council candidates on the ballot.

"Anytime you have that many candidates running for one office, it could be close," she said. "But we just don't know what exactly to expect."

Swensen also noted that if races are tight in the primary election, they likely will stay close until the official canvass.

"It's never done until it's done," she said. "(The new law) doesn't solve everything, but the bottom line is it gives more information to people along the way."

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Voting in the primary election

Mail-in ballots had to be postmarked — not just handed to a mail carrier or dropped in a mailbox — no later than Monday. But mail-in ballots can also can be dropped off until the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday at a county clerk's office, polling location or designated drop box listed at vote.utah.gov.

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1