Summit County clerk lauds vote-by-mail after ‘pretty smooth’ primary
Summit County primary election by the numbers
Ballots sent out: 16,753
Ballots cast: 10,856
Republican turnout: 67.29%
Democratic turnout: 63.01%
Officials said Utah’s first major election during the pandemic was a success despite measures implemented to curb spread of the virus, with the June primary potentially offering insight into how November’s general election will unfold.
“I think it went pretty smooth for June,” said Summit County Clerk Kent Jones.
A local party leader added that candidates were apparently able to connect with voters despite social distancing measures and that the virus did not have a dampening effect on local races.
In fact, turnout in the county was nearly double that of the 2018 primary and nearly matched that of the presidential primary in March.
Jones had cautioned before the primary that it might take the better part of a month to determine election results, given measures implemented to guard against the virus like quarantining ballots.
Election data shows that the results didn’t change much from those released the night of the election, even in the closest races. The county released initial returns that did not include ballots mailed or dropped off in the final hours of the race. When the county released a second batch of unofficial results two days later, the totals included more than 90% of the outstanding ballots. The initial results accounted for about 69% of the total, leaving some 3,380 votes uncounted.
“Didn’t turn out to be a big delay,” Jones said. “Thought maybe it would be.”
Many of the ballots weren’t counted on Election Day because of the safety measures put in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a new regulation allowing voters to mail their ballots on the day of the election itself, rather than having to postmark it the day before, meaning some ballots had not yet arrived.
But if more people had waited until Monday or Tuesday to send in their ballots, Jones said, it’s possible more votes would have been left uncounted in initial returns. He noted, though, that even late-returning ballots tend to follow the trend of the broader election, something the primary data bears out.
The percentage of ballots left uncounted after election night had virtually the same partisan breakdown as the overall results, meaning the same percentage of Summit County Democrats waited until the last minute to mail their ballots as did Republicans.
Local election boards certify results in an official canvass days after the election to allow time for election officials to account for irregularities. In Utah, the date for the canvass is set by the state Legislature and is usually two weeks after the election.
Summit County certified the results from the June 30 primary on July 21, a week later than when results are usually finalized. That deadline extension was one of several measures put in place by the Legislature to lessen the effects of the virus, which were mostly aimed at reducing interaction between poll workers and voters and included restricting in-person voting, banning election-day voter registration and switching to an almost exclusively mail-in vote.
Jones anticipates many of the same measures will be enacted in November.
Meredith Reed, the chair of the Summit County Democrats, said she was initially worried that people might sit out the election because of the pandemic, but was impressed with the level of engagement she witnessed from local voters, which she said was a credit to local candidates.
“I was really impressed with … people that cared enough to write in to The Park Record, people that, their viewpoint, their experience with these candidates inspired them to support them and really be publicly engaged with that process, not just like ‘OK, whatever, we’re holed up in shutdown mode,’” Reed said.
Jennifer McDonald, chair of the Summit County Republicans, did not return a request for comment.
Summit County has about 26,000 registered voters, Jones said, but primary elections see lower turnout for multiple reasons, including the fact that some races are only open to members of a certain political party. Those numbers tend to increase in presidential contests.
That doesn’t mean that local primaries aren’t important, though. Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in decades and the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is the odds-on favorite to win in November. The inverse is true in Summit County, where no Republican filed to run for a seat on the all-Democratic County Council, virtually assuring the winner of that Democratic primary, Malena Stevens, a seat on the council.
According to the official results, 10,856 Summit County residents voted in the primary, just shy of the 10,984 that participated in the March presidential primary.
Jones said that the 2016 presidential election was the first in which the county used a vote-by-mail option, and that voting by mail has not hurt turnout. The 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drew 87.6% voter participation in the county, some 21,037 votes.
He flatly dismissed notions that voting by mail increases the chances of voter fraud. Each ballot requires a signature, he said, which is compared against signatures on file, and a specific barcode on each ballot prevents a person from voting twice, even if they’d received a Democratic primary ballot and then changed parties and also received a Republican one.
“You know, people have that in mind,” Jones said of voter fraud. “But if they see what we do and follow the process. … There’s a lot of stuff that can happen, it never does.”
Jones predicted the state Legislature would keep many of the same steps in place for November’s election, including limiting in-person voting options. If something were to change, he thinks ballots might be mailed a week earlier compared to previous elections to give county clerks more time to ensure people who need a ballot receive one.
“Think we’re still going to see pretty much an all-by-mail election, probably going to see no in-person registration or same-day voting, that kind of stuff,” Jones said. “Because the by-mail is still getting record numbers as far as returns, so we’re not alienating anybody.”
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