SALT LAKE CITY — Ballots will finally be hitting Utahns’ mailboxes this week, ahead of the contentious presidential election on Nov. 3.
Bracing for a flood of returned ballots amid what they expect will be record-breaking turnout, clerks are urging voters to send their ballots back as soon as possible — hoping to avoid long lines at the polls on Election Day and so as many votes as possible can be included in election night results.
“The sooner people can send them in, the better,” Utah Elections Director Justin Lee said on Monday, the day before ballots were expected to start being mailed to Utahns.
Under Utah law, clerks were required to wait until 21 days before the election — Tuesday — to begin mailing ballots. Monday morning, clerks sent their first batch of ballots (made up of current, active registered voters) to the Salt Lake City post office, where postal workers will sort and distribute beginning Tuesday morning.
Over 1.6 million ballots will be hitting Utah mailboxes for active registered voters this week. That’s compared to about 1.4 million active registered voters state election officials reported as of January. Throughout the year, new registrations across the board — Republicans and Democrats alike — have surged, Lee said, indicating this year’s election will be more energized than ever.
“Everything points to a record-breaking turnout,” Lee said. “We’ve seen constant voter registration all year long. It really hasn’t let up.”
Clerks urge Utahns, if they are active registered voters and are still missing their ballots within the week, to contact their county clerk’s office as soon as possible to ensure they get their ballots.
Despite nationwide drama over voting by mail and the U.S. Postal Service, Utah election officials say Utah’s nearly eight-year track record with voting by mail has positioned the state to have a reliable and secure 2020 election.
Utah election officials want to avoid what’s already being seen in other states, where voting has already begun: hourslong waits at polling locations.
“This makes me sad,” Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, Utah’s top election official who is also the Republican nominee to be Utah’s next governor, tweeted on Monday, referencing a video of an over five-hour line of in-person voters in Georgia. “It shouldn’t be this hard to vote. I’m grateful for county clerks and legislators that have worked hard to make voting here easier. We have a record number of drop boxes this year. Ballots will be arriving this week. Please vote and vote early!”
This makes me sad. It shouldn’t be this hard to vote. I’m grateful for county clerks and legislators that have worked hard to make voting easier here. We have a record number of drop boxes this year. Ballots will be arriving this week. Please vote and vote early! https://t.co/dPmMAQaB6s— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) October 12, 2020
Election officials are encouraging Utahns to reserve in-person voting only for those who need it — and to cast their votes using their mail-in ballots, whether they send them back through the mail or drop them off at the numerous drop boxes located throughout the state. Drop box locations are listed on county clerks’ websites.
“We hope the message is getting out there, and we’ll continue to keep pushing it,” Lee said. “Avoid the polls unless you absolutely have to.”
Utahns have already been eager to vote. Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said for weeks she’s been hounded by frustrated voters asking why they haven’t received their ballots yet.
“We weren’t allowed to mail them any sooner,” Swensen said, pointing to Utah law that requires ballots not to be mailed until 21 days before the election, even though clerks lobbied the Utah Legislature to change that date this year amid the pandemic. “People have been so upset and concerned and downright frustrated.”
But Swensen hopes that means voters will waste no time returning their ballots.
Post office workers have recommended Utahns return their ballots at least a week in advance of Election Day. Utah law requires ballots to be postmarked by the end of the day before Election Day. If voters have any doubt their ballots won’t be postmarked in time, they can also drop them at secure drop boxes, which clerks say are only accessed by election officials, who will then transpor the ballots directly to clerks’ offices to be tabulated.
Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner — who took the helm of the elections office of one of Utah’s most conservative counties a year after it saw aggravating long lines in 2018 — said she’s “always worried” about long lines at Utah County polling places.
But this year, the stakes are even higher, with new voter registration filings still pouring in and amid a pandemic when social distancing requirements will cause lines to lengthen even faster if too many people show up to vote in person.
“I have a goal this year to not have a line in Utah County longer than 45 minutes,” Gardner said, explaining how she’s told her staff to brace for at least 60,000 in-person voters, when in 2018 her county saw about 22,000 voters show up at the polls. “I want it to be overkill.”
Gardner said Utah County also purchased new software to help avoid lines. She said a QR code will be posted outside polling locations so voters can use the program to reserve their place in line and submit their phone numbers to poll workers so they can wait in their cars. When it’s their turn to vote, poll workers will call.
“I decided if restaurants can do it, we should be able to too,” Gardner said.
If voters haven’t registered to vote, they won’t receive a ballot in the mail. Voters can still register online until Oct. 23. Some counties also allow in-person voting, but clerks hope Utahns don’t wait until then to register at the polls.
This year’s Utah ballot is packed with not just the presidential election, but also races for governor, Congress, legislative seats, county positions and school board posts. The ballot also includes statewide questions for changes to the state constitution and whether to retain state and local judges.