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PROVO — After facing a wave of angry city leaders and residents upset with their decision to not use mail-in ballots this year, Utah County officials have reversed course.
Utah County will conduct an all vote-by-mail election in 2018 after all, Utah County commissioners announced on Thursday, after learning from the lieutenant governor's office they can legally change their decision.
"Our responsibility as representatives is to govern, to respond and to listen to constituents, and that's exactly what we're doing here," said Utah County Commission Chairman Nathan Ivie.
Commissioners and Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson initially decided against holding an all vote-by-mail election during the county's budget process in December, hoping to save taxpayer money and put the county's voting equipment to good use.
"We picked a path that, for us, felt financially responsible," Commissioner Bill Lee said. "We had equipment that was already purchased and being used."
But after leaders from several cities and other concerned residents heard of the decision from media reports earlier this week, Ivie and Lee said they received a flood of requests to rethink their choice.
The county had a Feb. 1 deadline to notify the lieutenant governor's office that it would do all voting by mail, but after receiving clarification from state election officials it wasn't too late to change their minds, the commissioners said they decided to make the switch.
There's a catch, though. The voting by mail will cost more — about $500,000 more — according to rough preliminary estimates, Lee said.
"Again our first responsibility is to look after taxpayer dollars," Ivie said, but added commissioners also want to make sure there's "equal access to the ballot and primarily to make sure that the voice of Utah County citizens is heard."
Ivie said a big concern he heard from residents was whether the decision to not do a vote-by-mail election would result in a loss of convenient access to the ballot in a statewide election year, with some federal and state races spanning across multiple county boundaries. He said some worried Utah County voters could be at a disadvantage without vote-by-mail, compared to other neighboring counties using mail-in ballots.
Our responsibility ... is to govern, to respond and to listen to constituents, and that's exactly what we're doing.
–Nathan Ivie, Utah County commission chairman
"We are the heartbeat of conservatism here in Utah County, and it's essential that those voices not be drowned out by a lesser minority because they have easier access," Ivie said.
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, one of the elected officials upset by the county's initial decision, said she was "glad to hear" the commissioners changed their minds.
"It's the method that gets higher voter turnout around here, and the whole idea of our system is to let ordinary citizens influence things through their votes," she said. "So to me, choosing a method that gets more of us voting makes a lot of sense."
In addition to ponying up the additional cash — for printing, materials, staff and contracts with the equipment vendor — Lee said it will also cause a slight "scramble" for the Utah County clerk's office to prepare for the primary in three months.
The county's clerk/auditor said Wednesday that while his office has a lot of work to do to prepare, he and the vendors the county contracts with have planned for "contingencies," and they'll be ready for the primary.
"As the county commissioners started reconsidering it, they asked us what we could do, and we said if you give us additional funding we can still make the change," Thompson said. "All those ducks were put in a row, I was well-aware of them, and I was excited to see the support of the commissioners to help me administer what appears to be the will of the people."
Thompson said it's a decision that's "ultimately" up to commissioners, and that "personally, I am pleased that if they want us to do it that way, they're going to give us the resources to do it."
Thompson said the $500,000 was a "very rough, high-end estimate" that he plans to "fine tune." He said he did know, however, that the change means voters will have to put their own stamp on the ballot when they mail it. Last year, the cities that contracted with the county paid for the return postage, but the county will not, he said.
Noting that about 20,000 ballots were wasted last year because they bounced back due to inaccurate addresses, Lee urged Utah County residents to update their addresses in time for this year's election.
"If you're worried about tax dollars, update your addresses," Lee said.
The commissioners also hope this year's election won't see as many issues as last year, when a clerical error resulted in the county's 68,000 unaffiliated voters receiving Republican ballots during the primary.
Ivie noted the 2017 election was a unique year for the county because of the 3rd Congressional District race, which resulted in unique voter boundaries during a municipal year. This year's statewide election should be more straightforward and less prone to errors, Ivie said.