COVID exposure sends Summit County Clerk’s Office into quarantine, hampering Election Day vote count

The Summit County Courthouse.
Park Record file photo

The Summit County Clerk’s Office was under quarantine after a staff member was exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19, officials said Monday, halting vote processing as Election Day came and went.

The office had already processed about 18,000 ballots as of Friday, and those were the results the Clerk’s Office expected to announce Tuesday night, according to Summit County Clerk Kent Jones. That’s 62.5% of active registered voters in Summit County.

Officials had anticipated a turnout upward of 90%, which would mean about 8,000 ballots left uncounted as of Election Day.

The Clerk’s Office planned to process all ballots received after Friday once the quarantine is lifted, which could be as soon as Nov. 6.

County officials stressed that all votes would be counted before the mid-November deadline for official results. Jones said he anticipated the office will next report results Monday, Nov. 10, which would include the thousands of ballots that arrived after Oct. 30.

County spokesperson Derek Siddoway said the Clerk’s Office counts votes after Election Day every year and that this development would not impact election results.

“Really all we’re missing are a couple thousand votes that we received after Friday through Tuesday,” Siddoway said. “We want to assure people that every vote will be counted. The process of counting ballots after Election Day is something we do every election cycle.”

The four Clerk’s Office staffers are planning to quarantine through the end of the week, though Jones said staffers who don’t have symptoms could take a test on Friday that would clear them to return to work.

As of Tuesday morning, county officials were awaiting the result of a COVID-19 test for the staffer who was exposed to determine how to proceed and the length of the quarantine. Clerk’s Office employees initially expected to quarantine through Friday, a determination made in conjunction with the Summit County health director and nursing director, Siddoway said.

Jones reported Tuesday morning that he was feeling fine and did not have symptoms of COVID-19.

The county did not release information about the person who had been exposed to the virus, but Siddoway said the test was sought because of exposure to a known case of COVID-19 rather than the onset of symptoms.

The county adapted to fill the Election Day roles normally accomplished by members of the Clerk’s Office. The drive-through voting site was staffed by county personnel from outside the Clerk’s Office, and no one who was under quarantine or who was known to have been potentially exposed was at the location, officials said.

Summit County Sheriff’s Office deputies were slated to travel around the county to retrieve ballots from all seven drop boxes. The county also called in election workers who have worked in previous elections.

Voters were still able to use the drive-through voting location at the Summit County Fairgrounds on Election Day and drop their ballots off at drop boxes by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Jones reported Tuesday morning that about 15 to 20 vehicles were lined up when the site opened at 7 a.m. and that there was a relatively constant stream of vehicles going through the site through the morning.

Siddoway added that there is no concern the exposure came from in-person early voting or from ballots that were returned to the Clerk’s Office.

“There’s no reason to believe at this time that anyone in the Clerk’s Office was not taking all precautions necessary to avoid COVID,” Siddoway said. “Our understanding is they were wearing masks, doing everything they were supposed to do, in addition to some extra steps to process ballots.”

Officials were allowing ballots to quarantine for a day before processing them to avoid the risk that the ballots themselves would be vectors of COVID-19.

Election results are officially accepted by an executive body a few weeks after an election — in this case the Summit County Council — in what’s known as a canvass. The date is set by state officials, and will occur on Nov. 17. Siddoway stressed that all Summit County votes would be counted by that deadline and that the temporary quarantine would not impact election results.

It may, however, lengthen the uncertainty for candidates in tight local races, including state House District 54, which was decided by 162 votes in 2018, and in local school board races, which are divided by geographical boundaries that include many fewer voters than countywide contests.

Siddoway said county officials had been consulting with other county clerks in the state and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, which runs Utah’s elections. Jones said staffers from the company that manufactures vote-counting machines were available to help tally ballots if necessary later this week.

He said the county was receiving around 2,000 ballots daily and was on track to receive and process about 26,000 total before the quarantine knocked the process sideways. That would approximate the 90% turnout that he had predicted.

While COVID-19 has forced some changes to how elections are conducted, Jones said his office routinely processes ballots after Election Day. He indicated that results from nearly 100% of Summit County votes could be available as soon as Monday.

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