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What Utah officials told Pennsylvania about conducting elections

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A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in Salt Lake City

A worker carries a bin of ballots to a rolling cart as election workers process ballots at the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office in Salt Lake City on Nov. 3, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Pennsylvania found itself at the center of controversy during the 2020 election.

An onslaught of mail-in ballots prompted by a new law being tested for the first time amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the state’s election officials, who were prohibited from counting the ballots before Election Day.

President Donald Trump took direct aim at the Keystone State as his lead eroded and Joe Biden ultimately emerged as the winner by 81,000 votes, or about 1%. Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud led to lawsuits that Pennsylvania courts and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected.

As a result, the Pennsylvania Senate created the bipartisan Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform. The nine-member panel is anticipated to make recommendations to lawmakers on how to improve the state’s election process.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the issues of the 2020 election have dominated the headlines, and this committee was formed to examine how we can do better,” said Pennsylvania state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., a Republican who heads the committee.

At its first hearing, the committee turned to Utah — a state that has allowed counties to run elections entirely by mail since 2012 — for advice. It also heard from election officials in Colorado and Florida.

Justin Lee, Utah elections director, and longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen explained the intricacies of the state’s election process, including how the vast majority of Utahns now vote by mail.

“Our experience in Utah is that vote by mail has proven to be safe and secure,” Lee said. 

Only one small county, Duchesne County, with 10,000 active voters ran its election by mail that first year. In the eight years since, all 29 counties in the state have come around to conducting their elections by mail.

In 2020, about 90% of Utah voters voted by mail in the March presidential primary, 99% in the June state primary, and about 93% in the November general election. 

“What is the biggest complaint with voting by mail? And I’m not being facetious here. I’m being completely honest. Over the years the biggest complaint we receive by far is that voters did not get an ‘I voted’ sticker through the mail,” Lee said.

Some counties, he said, have figured out ways to send the sticker with the ballot, cutting down on the number of complaints.

Swensen said one of the “huge” benefits is voter turnout. In Salt Lake County, a record 90% of registered voters participated in last November’s general election, she said.

“Wow, 90%. That’s very impressive,” said Sen. Sharif Street, the Pennsylvania Senate committee’s Democratic chairman. “It’s a goal we should all look for to try and get 90% in every county across the country. Certainly, we’d love to see 90% turnout in the commonwealth.”

During the hearing, Pennsylvania lawmakers questioned Lee and Swensen about election security, voter rolls, voter identification, ballot drop boxes, ballot curing and fraud.

Lee told the committee Utah hasn’t seen widespread voter fraud, but there have been instances where voters have signed a ballot on behalf of someone else, such as a spouse, partner or child who might be away at school. County officials catch those cases because they verify every signature against the voter’s signature in the state’s database, he said.

If that happens, voters are informed that they are committing a crime.

“We don’t see a lot of repeat offenders when we reach out and let them know that,” Lee said.

Over the years, the larger concern among Utah voters has been to make sure election officials don’t discount their ballot because the signature on the envelope doesn’t match the one in the database due to age, injury or “neat or messy” handwriting on any given day, he said.

Counties have a system in place that allows voters to “cure” an issue with a signature. County clerks reach out through email, letter, phone call or text message to have them verify whether they signed the ballot, which also provides an opportunity for a county to collect a more up-to-date signature. 

Utah also has a tracking system on its elections website that allows voters to see if a county clerk has received their ballot and if it was counted. Going forward the state will add text and emails notifications to let voters know the status of their ballot, Lee said.

After the meeting, Democratic state Sen. Lindsey Williams said Pennsylvania has a lot of work ahead to update its election law.

“Pennsylvania’s flawed law prohibited our officials from opening ballots until the morning of Election Day, which led to delayed results. This delay resulted in mass disinformation and unsubstantiated allegations of fraud,” she said.

Williams also said the state should allow voters to cure their ballots when election officials find human errors, such as not signing their ballot or using a secrecy envelope, for “security purposes, not to disenfranchise voters.”

“I wholeheartedly support the expansion of vote by mail and increased voter participation,” she said.

Colorado, which has some of the highest voter turnout in the country, has mailed ballots to all active voters since 2013, but before then permitted no excuse absentee voting.

“Voting by mail is a critical way to provide voters the opportunity to fully participate in elections, but to be effective proper procedures and laws must be implemented,” Wayne Williams, former Colorado secretary of state, told the committee.

Colorado’s mail voting system accurately and securely records votes. Short of breaking into a secure locked room that is video monitored, there is no way to change the programming of its county machines during an election.

“So, while I can’t speak for the practices of every state, I can state that in Colorado the mail voting systems we use accurately records the votes of Coloradans — and we’ve proved it through testing more than 800 times,” Williams said. “No one in Moscow, Beijing, antifa or anywhere else altered our election results in Colorado.”