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Audit of 3rd District primary shows weaknesses in election process

Audit of 3rd District primary shows weaknesses in election process

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SALT LAKE CITY — Following a problem-plagued primary in Utah's 3rd Congressional District, the state auditor's office Tuesday pointed out errors made during the political process and issued recommendations for avoiding similar mistakes in future elections.

The Office of the State Auditor released a pair of letters it sent to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox highlighting party registration and mailing errors that left voters in two counties without their proper ballot information. The letters noted both an initial ballot mistake, as well as how that issue was addressed by poll workers.

In late July, more than 68,000 unaffiliated voters in Utah County were sent Republican ballots. County elections officials attempted to rectify the mistake, but the problem was compounded for unaffiliated voters who did not realize they could affiliate with the Republican Party on the day of the primary election and vote in the race.

In an Aug. 17 letter from Auditor John Dougall, observers noted that poll workers separated the mail-in ballots based on whether the voter was registered as a Republican or unaffiliated. Those ballots were sorted onto separate election servers, according to the letter.

The poll workers assured observers that the unaffiliated votes would be counted after the Republican and provisional ballots cast by voters who affiliated as Republican the day of the election, the letter states. That was done to make sure provisional ballots would be counted even if voters had mistakenly sent in an unaffiliated ballot, according to the auditor.

Dougall also noted that "insufficient protection was provided" to ensure ballot secrecy in the 3rd District primary.

Auditors found that an individual's votes could be seen through the ballot return sleeve, with or without backlighting.

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"Since a voter's name and possibly address appear on the return envelope, it would be possible for anyone handling the return envelope to link an individual voter to that voter's specific votes," Dougall wrote.

Elections observers in one county reported seeing two poll workers stack unfolded ballots close to their return envelopes, which have voters' names on them. State election code requires poll workers to remove those ballots without unfolding them to prevent unlawful ballot examination.

In another county, poll watchers noted that voters' names and the votes they cast could be seen depending on how the ballots were folded, even though poll workers had obeyed the statute against unfolding ballots.

Second letter

A second letter, dated Sept. 19, provided a further examination of errors in the Voter Information and State Tracking Application, or VISTA, where the ballot mailing issues originated.

According to the report, VISTA may have confused election officials. In cases with unaffiliated voters, an R+ designation is placed on their file, indicating that they are to be sent a Republican ballot, as well as an affiliation form that an unaffiliated voter would have to fill out for their vote in the Republican primary to be counted.

Some Democratic, Libertarian, Independent American and Constitution party voters throughout the state also experienced delays in receiving their municipal ballots.

Dougall's letter concluded by recommending that poll workers strengthen protections to ballot secrecy and that elections officials send out correct ballots in a timely manner to prevent initial ballot errors, as well as errors from the corrective process.

Dougall also recommended that election officials become more comfortable with VISTA. Email: rmorgan@deseretnews.com

Ryan Morgan

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