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Utah County scraps vote-by-mail elections this year

Several city officials ‘furious’ with decision to return to traditional polling places

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Months ago, Utah County officials decided against hosting an all vote-by-mail election this year — but now that city leaders are finding out, they aren’t happy.

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PROVO — Months ago, Utah County officials decided against hosting another vote-by-mail election this year. But now that city leaders are finding out, many of them aren't happy.

"We're furious," Pleasant Grove Councilwoman Dianna Andersen said Tuesday.

Andersen and leaders from other cities — including Provo, American Fork and Orem — have joined in a chorus of frustration, hoping Utah County officials will reverse their decision to hold a traditional election for 2018 with an absentee voting option rather than automatically sending vote-by-mail ballots to all households throughout the county, like the county did in last year's special election.

Utah County is no stranger to controversy when it comes to voting by mail. Last year — its first all by-mail election — more than 68,000 unaffiliated 3rd Congressional District voters in the county were mistakenly sent Republican ballots due to a clerical error. The blunder later caused confusion at primary polls.

But Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson and county commissioners said last year's issues weren't the main reasons why they decided against another vote-by-mail election this year.

Thompson, Commissioner Bill Lee and Commissioner Nathan Ivie said they made the decision during the county's budgeting process in December in an effort to be responsible with taxpayer money and to eventually ease into an all by-mail election by the next presidential election in 2020.

Thompson said he and county commissioners agreed it would be best to put the county's existing voting equipment to good use instead of hosting a vote-by-mail election that would cost up to $150,000 more. He also said having voters who want to vote by mail opt-in for an absentee ballot will reduce wasted ballots, noting that about 20,000 ballots last year bounced back due to wrong addresses.

"We invested a significant amount of money in those voting machines, so it's hard to let those sit in storage," Ivie said. "It would feel like a waste of taxpayer money to let those sit in a closet and spend tens of thousands of dollars on postage."

Thompson said the county will also host expanded early voting in addition to absentee ballots — which residents can manually request at vote.utah.gov — and host a traditional number of polling places so anyone who wants to vote in person won't be at risk for long lines.

"I feel like we're being very methodical in rolling this out appropriately," Thompson added. "But I know some people disagree."

City officials are questioning why the county is reverting back to a traditional election — especially when last year's vote-by-mail election experienced a record turnout.

"This is just blatantly wrong. It isn't the American way," said Orem Councilman Tom Macdonald. "Don't we want high turnout?"

Provo Mayor Michell Kaufusi pointed out that her city saw a huge jump in turnout for the 2017 election. It was about 37 percent last year, whereas turnout was 18 percent in 2015 and 15 percent in 2013, she said. (It's worth noting 2017 was also a unique municipal election year due to the 3rd Congressional special election to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz.)

"From everything I've heard, citizens prefer vote-by-mail by a large margin," Kaufusi said. "It allows them to really study the issues and candidates while they review the ballot in the privacy of their own homes. And the increase in voter participation is tremendous."

American Fork Mayor Brad Frost said he's not "satisfied" with the county's financial reasoning, asking, "If you can double (turnout), why would you not carry that trend forward?"

Kaufusi, Andersen, Macdonald and Frost also worry that a switch back to a traditional election might confuse voters due to a lack of consistency from year to year.

"Consistency does work," Andersen said.

But Thompson said he doesn't think it will lead to confusion, noting that some cities in Utah County had by-mail elections in 2015, then in 2016 the county held a traditional election.

This year, Utah County will be the only county along the Wasatch Front and one of only three in the state that won't be holding a vote-by-mail election. Emery County and Carbon County are the other counties holding traditional elections this year, according to the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office.

"I'm a little surprised they are changing it because they seemed to see higher turnout, particularly for the primary election," said Justin Lee, the state's elections director. "But it's ultimately a decision left to the county."

Lee said there is "always a possibility of voter confusion" when changing the type of election year to year.

"We would hope Utah County does really good outreach to voters to help them know what to expect," he said.

Frost said he and other elected officials will be reaching out to the county to ask it to reverse the decision. "I hope that door isn't closed, because I intend to reopen it," he said.

It's not clear, however, whether county could. Lee said under state law, any county that will run a vote-by-mail election is supposed to notify the state's election office by Feb. 1.

"If the county decided they wanted to go in a different direction, we would have to look at that," Lee said.