SALT LAKE CITY — “Get out to vote by staying home” and “Your porch is your polling place” proclaim digital ads from the state about the new restrictions in place for Utah’s June 30 primary election that, because of COVID-19, will be conducted entirely by mail.
“The message we’re trying to get out to voters is if you want to vote in the primary election, be prepared,” Utah Deputy Elections Director Derek Brenchley said. “Check if you’re going to receive a ballot. Make sure you’re registered and change your affiliation prior to the election,” if necessary.
Just seven of the state’s 29 counties have opted to set up what’s being called mobile voting — driving up to a designated location on Election Day and requesting a ballot that must be filled out elsewhere and returned by mail or to a drop box.
So outside of Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Box Elder and Iron counties, Utahns who haven’t received a ballot in the mail for whatever reason “may not have an opportunity to vote on Election Day,” Brenchley said, as they have had in the past.
Changes to the primary intended to eliminate in-person voting amid the global coronavirus pandemic that were made by the Utah Legislature in a special session last month did away with polling places, as well as early voting and same-day voter registration for the election.
Utah voters, who participated in largely by-mail elections for several years now, will have an extra day to mail their ballots under the new law. The new deadline for postmarking a ballot is Election Day, not the day before, something the state is also promoting in the advertising campaign set to launch next week.
“You want to minimize voter confusion,” Brenchley said. The changes are only in place for the June 30 election.
County clerks are already reaching out to voters about the primary. Unaffiliated voters are receiving notices reminding them to choose which ballot they want sent out, and that if it’s for the Republican primary, they’ll have to affiliate with that party. The deadline for changing party affiliation is June 19.
In Utah County, voters got a letter spelling out the “COVID-19 changes” to the primary election with a warning that “there will be no in-person voting” and advising anyone who doesn’t see a ballot in their mailbox by June 17 to contact the clerk/auditor’s office.
“It makes me nervous,” said Amelia Powers Gardner, Utah County clerk/auditor. “We’re going to have people that should be able to vote that for some reason or another didn’t receive their mail-in ballot, or ... they can’t find it and then all of a sudden, they don’t have the opportunity to vote.”
Powers Gardner said Utah County, in addition to once again utilizing a cellphone app for military, overseas and disabled voters, is setting up mobile voting locations on Election Day in Provo, American Fork, Spanish Fork and Saratoga Springs to give those voters a chance to cast a ballot.
“Even if it’s a logistical nightmare, I want to give them that opportunity,” she said.
Brenchley said election results will take longer, with the first vote counts not expected to be reported until 10 p.m. instead of right after the traditional 8 p.m. poll closing. The final canvass of the election results will take three weeks rather than two, so election workers can spread out and ballots have time to sit before being tabulated.
What’s not clear is what effect the changes will have on voter participation, even though there are a number of hotly contested GOP primary contests, including four-way races for governor and in the 4th Congressional District, while there are both Republican and Democratic primaries in the 1st Congressional District.
“Given the fact that we also have this pandemic going on, and of course the normal process of having primaries in the summer when people tend to be less attentive to political races, it’s hard to know what the turnout is going to look like,” University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.
Burbank said some voters may end up enjoying the distraction of politics right now, while others may be “consciously not paying close attention to the news because they don’t want to be bombarded with all that information” about the deadly virus.
Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, the sponsor of HB3006, the bill changing the primary, said he believes there’s going to be plenty of voter interest in the election. Still, Moss said he “of course” worries that some voters may be left out.
“I would much rather not have this issue. We would rather make this as accessible as possible,” he said, noting the changes were made in April when the state was under a stay-at-home directive that has since been eased, out of concern for the state’s most vulnerable populations, especially older voters and election workers.
“Since then, our paradigms have shifted quite a bit in terms of the severity of this. We’re still very concerned, obviously, but at the time there was very limited understanding of just how bad it was going to be,” Moss said, adding, “Who knows, in a month from now we may feel like ‘Wow, that wasn’t even necessary.’”