SALT LAKE CITY — Known as ballot “harvesting,” the collection of ballots from voters in bulk by political operatives hasn’t really been an issue in Utah, but that didn’t stop state legislators from making it a crime during last month’s special session.

The action by the Utah Legislature, part of a larger bill making changes to November’s election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, comes as President Donald Trump and others are condemning the move by many states to conduct elections by mail — something Utah has done for years — and practices such as ballot collections.

Among his many statements on the topic, Trump tweeted in May that by-mail voting will result in “the greatest Rigged Election in history. People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and “force” people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!”

In another tweet later that month, the president used all caps to say the country must “get rid of ballot harvesting,” calling it “rampant with fraud.” His reelection campaign has sued Nevada over a new law permitting ballot collections as part of that state’s switch to sending ballots directly to voters.

Questions have also been raised about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle tens of millions of ballots amid cutbacks by the administration, and Trump threatened at one point to block funding intended to accommodate an increase in voting by mail.

All that caught the attention of Utah lawmakers, said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, the House sponsor of SB6007, which passed unanimously during the Legislature’s sixth special session on Aug. 20 and has been signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert.

Given there was “lots of noise going on,” Handy said, lawmakers decided “let’s just tamp this down.”

“There’s been those concerns that have come out of the White House and then from that campaign about ballot harvesting and also about the integrity of the post office. We wanted to reaffirm through this bill that we have high integrity in our election system in the state of Utah,” he said.

No one has brought up any instances of ballot collecting in Utah, Handy said. The practice that has been considered by elections officials as prohibited for many years although the law was not entirely clear and didn’t spell out any penalties.

The new law makes ballot collecting a class A misdemeanor and allows some exceptions, including for those living in the same household or those who need assistance. Handy said it was preemptive, noting some fear there could be well-meaning efforts to collect ballots because of the pandemic.

“We wanted just to be sure that it was clearly constructed in the code even though we don’t know of any incidents,” he said. “There’s so much nonsense about election integrity in the country — not in Utah but in the country — that the thinking was, let’s just go ahead and clarify that in this bill while we have the opportunity.”

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he was ready to run a bill on ballot collecting for similar reasons.

The president “has been saying mail-in voting is fraudulent and casting doubt. My experience in Utah has just been the opposite. I think mail-in voting has been wonderful. I think it’s very secure,” Weiler said. “I just wanted to eliminate any vestiges of what people could use to say our elections are unsafe or unsecured in Utah.”

Utah — along with Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii — was already conducting elections almost entirely by mail well before the novel coronavirus outbreak resulted in several states attempting to do the same this year while others are making it easier to get an absentee ballot.

Nationally, ballot collectors from both political parties have targeted absentee voters, those who ask to receive their ballot by mail in states where residents are expected to go to a polling place to vote. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, just over half the states allow a third party to submit ballots.

In 2018, the practice made headlines when the results of a North Carolina election were tossed out and a political operative for the Republican candidate was charged in connection with an alleged scheme to illegally tamper with the absentee ballots being collected.

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the national organization, said in an analysis of ballot collections — she says calling it ballot harvesting is pejorative — “from a voter’s point of view, it may be taken as a kindness if someone offers to mail in or drop off a voted ballot (in its signed envelope).”

But Underhill also pointed out the practice raises questions.

“From an election integrity point of view, does the act of collecting ballots, voted or unvoted, leave room for out-and-out election fraud? Is it possible that voted ballots might be collected, but not delivered, if the voter is of a different party than the collector?”

She told the Deseret News that the increased attention on voting by mail means ballot collections are getting more attention, too.

“It’s my belief that as more people choose to vote absentee, then these fine points of how the absentee voting or the mail voting process works come to the foreground,” Underhill said. “As you go to vote by mail, as Utah has, this does become a question.”

So, she said, “it makes sense that if you’re concerned about who’s handling ballots that this is something you might want to look at.” Voters are likely to be more cautious about turning over the ballots to someone rather than dropping them in the mail or at a designated location this election year, Underhill said, even when it is allowed.

Other states, she said, largely restrict both who can turn a ballot in for a voter as well as the number of ballots that can be submitted. The reasons voters may choose to hand over their completed ballots include missing the deadline for mailing, she said.

Under the new Utah law, the state reverts back to the requirement that ballots be postmarked by the Monday before the election, a deadline that had been moved to Election Day for the June 30 primary. However, voters can still turn in ballots on Election Day at designated drop boxes.

The law also restores at least some options to vote in person, which was not allowed during the primary.

State Elections Director Justin Lee said while campaigns routinely ask about collecting ballots, they’re told they can’t and he’s not aware of it happening. The new law adds teeth to the prohibition against giving a ballot to anyone other than a poll worker that’s been in place for at least a decade, he said, while spelling out exceptions.

“This really beefed it up and added some clarity on penalties,” Lee said, adding that even though ballot collecting “has not been a big issue” in the state, the bill still offers “a good message to remind people what we already do here in Utah.”

Longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen could recall only one instance of ballot collecting, when a GOP volunteer contacted her office in 2014 after being asked to go after the absentee ballots that had been sent out but not returned. Since then, Swensen said, she’s advised campaigns that the practice is not allowed.

“We’ve had a lot of questions about it. We’ve had a number of campaigns ask about that and we’ve told them no, it’s not allowed by state law,” she said, noting they were “just trying to figure out how they can get their supporters to get their ballots in.”

Voters are expressing concerns about the upcoming election, both Lee and Swensen said, but it’s not ballot collecting that they’re worried about. Instead, they want to know why they haven’t received their ballots for the November election in the mail yet.

Under the new law, ballots can’t be mailed out until mid-October. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of Utah voters anxious to return their ballots early from contacting elections officials. Some have gone to the state’s voter website, vote.utah.gov, to track their ballots and been frustrated by a “No Ballot Found” message.

“I have never seen voters so anxious and enthused as in this election. It’s just unbelievable,” Swensen said, describing one upset caller who called it “ridiculous” that he didn’t already have his ballot.

“I don’t blame them,” she said. “They’re anxious. They’ve seen some of these (post office) sorting machines being removed and heard that staff is being cut back on purpose and so they’re very concerned. They want their ballots sooner rather than later.”