COALVILLE — There are those saying that voting by mail is going to be the ruin of us; that the system is too easily manipulated; that it’s the beginning of the end of democracy, or Donald Trump, take your pick.
But Kent Jones is not one of them.
“When you hear all the noise — ‘Oh there’s going to be fraud’; ‘They won’t know where the ballots are’; ‘It’s going to be a disaster!’ — it puts a lot of fear out there,” says Jones. “But I dare bet that you could go anywhere in the country and ask the people that administer elections and they’re going to tell you the same thing I’m going to tell you:
“We do know where the ballots are. We do know how to do it. The system is sound. There’s nothing to fear.”
Jones, as you might have guessed, is an election judge. As the duly elected county clerk in Summit County, he’s also in charge of marriage licenses, passports and a hundred other things.
“But elections is the biggest headache,” he says good-naturedly, “and the day after is the most satisfying.”
Jones can see why people around the country might have their concerns about voting by mail, especially in the many states, prodded by the pandemic, where by-mail voting is being implemented this year for the first time.
Four years ago, when Utah was one of a handful of states that switched to statewide by-mail voting for the 2016 presidential election, he had questions of his own.
“The system we had previous was a good one,” he recalls. “The touch screens were effective, and we had paper backup. So I was a little hesitant about the change.”
But he was quickly converted. The advantages proved to be many.
For one thing, the new system required no real learning curve. People already knew how to use the mail. For another, filling out their ballot on their kitchen table instead of in a voting booth gave them the luxury of time — “time to study the candidates, or maybe constitutional issues, those kinds of things,” says Jones.
For yet another, no one voting by mail had to stand in line — and the workload of counting the votes in the clerk’s office was spread out over a longer period of time as voters had a three-week window to return their ballots. Gone was the debilitating deadline crunch on Election Day.
And the crowning touch? Participation skyrocketed. Whereas previous presidential elections had seen about a 66 percent turnout, in 2016 that jumped to 88 percent.
“We sent out about 24,000 ballots and we got back about 21,000,” says Jones, still marveling at the response. “The difference was huge.”
Glitches were minimal. If someone called and said they didn’t get a ballot, the first ballot was voided and they were sent another one. If someone tried to vote twice? Couldn’t do it. Every registered voter’s signature is recorded in the clerk’s office and gets just one vote credit. If a signature on a ballot didn’t appear to match the signature on file, it went through a triple review before being disqualified, at which point the voter was notified and given a chance to revote.
Could someone cheat the system?
“I guess anything’s possible,” says Jones. “But there’s always at least two people with ballots. Everything is backed up. Nothing is done in a bubble. You’d have to have a lot of people in on it and I still don’t see how.”
So, no, he thinks not.
There can be issues. In that first by-mail election back in 2016, the race for Utah House seat 53 was a nail-biter. When all the votes were counted, longtime incumbent Mel Brown lost to newcomer Logan Wilde in a multicounty race by eight votes.
Since that was well within a quarter of a percent required for a recount, Brown asked for one.
When all the ballots were counted again, he lost by nine votes.
But there were a handful of mail-in ballots that hadn’t been counted because they’d missed the deadline of being postmarked at least one day before Election Day.
Brown wanted those counted, arguing they were legitimate votes cast in rural areas that the post office hadn’t processed fast enough. He petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to intervene before eventually deciding to drop the challenge. The law was clear. The ballots were never opened.
The message there is obvious: If you vote by mail, make sure your ballot is postmarked before Election Day.
Better yet, drop it in the special election drop boxes that don’t require postage and are delivered straight to the clerk’s office.
That said, Jones is quick to point out that “we’ve never had an issue with the post office. All this talk about the post office not being able to deliver — this will be our 11th election by mail over the past four years and we’ve never had a problem.”
Jones’ response to anyone voicing displeasure with by-mail voting is to have them come by the clerk’s office and observe the process — see how the sausage is made, so to speak.
“We’ve never had anyone who has said they don’t like it. Their response when they see it is they had no idea how well it really works.
“You know, most people don’t even know what local government does, let alone when you get down to the nuts and bolts of administering an election,” he muses. “They just know that we’re here but they don’t really know what we do.”