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Scott G Winterton, KSL

Days away from primary election, clerks troubled over low ballot returns

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Aug. 7, 2019 at 9:43 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Days away from the primary election next week, county clerks keeping tally of the trickle of ballots making their way back from voters' mailboxes are seeing some troubling returns.

"It isn't very good so far," Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told KSL on Wednesday.

So far, Salt Lake County has only received about 48,000 of the over 324,000 ballots sent out to voters last month, equaling only 14.8%.

It's not unusual for municipal elections to have a lower turnout than other elections — but Swensen said she'd hope for more ballots returned with less than a week to go before Tuesday's primary.

"So far it's not a good return rate," she said, guessing voters must be waiting before casting their votes. "We always expect to get a big push the last day or two, but this is kind of concerning to me that they're not getting the ballots in sooner."

The highest-profile primary race this year is in Salt Lake City, where eight candidates are vying to take Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's seat when she vacates it at the end of the year.

As of Tuesday, Swensen said she'd only received 16,264 Salt Lake City ballots out of 94,000 registered voters, equaling a 17.3% return.

With a wide field of candidates who have similar stances on issues, voters may be having a hard time picking or are taking their time to gather information on all the candidates, Swensen said.

There are other "interesting" races happening in other cities, too, Swensen said, pointing to West Jordan's primary election for the first strong mayoral seat.

Carson Adams, a temporary election coordinator, scans ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, KSL)

The newly incorporated town of Brighton is also holding its first election, where three mayoral hopefuls are running and nine candidates are vying for four council seats. Other cities like South Salt Lake — where the City Council has recently clashed with the mayor — have crowded primaries for council seats.

While Salt Lake County will be hosting 22 vote centers at various locations on Election Day, this year marks another mostly by-mail election, when clerks urge voters to send in their ballots by mail or drop them off at designated drop boxes rather than waiting until the final day to cast their votes.

While clerks don't anticipate long lines for a municipal primary, past elections with slow by-mail ballot return rates have become problematic when voters wait to cast their votes in-person at limited polling places.

Last year, some voters in Utah County saw lines as long as four hours — though election officials chalked up the waits to an unusual midterm election and a time-consuming ballot with a long list of ballot questions.

Rozan Mitchell, Utah County's election director, said the county's turnout as of Wednesday was only 10%, with just 16,000 ballots returned of the 166,000 mailed. Only 1,600 ballots came from the post office Wednesday morning, she said.

"I was a little discouraged by that," Mitchell said, but added that she's hopeful more ballots will start trickling in and will "blow up" Monday and Tuesday.

Mitchell is hoping for a turnout of between 25% and 30%, recognizing only nine cities are holding primaries, including only a partial primary in Provo for council races.

Mitchell encouraged voters to cast their votes "sooner rather than waiting until Election Day. It really helps the process and helps us get (more complete election night) results out quicker the more ballots we get in sooner."

Utah County will also have limited polling places, hosting its second-ever vote-by-mail election. People wanting to cast their vote in person can go to 10 vote centers throughout the county, though Mitchell encouraged voters to either mail or drop off their ballots.

In Davis County, elections manager Brian McKenzie reported a 16% ballot return so far, or about 18,000 ballots of the roughly 110,000 mailed out — which he acknowledged was low, but not unusual for a municipal primary.

"Obviously we hope more people decide to participate in this election," McKenzie said. "The more people who vote, the better our system works."

McKenzie also expected the primary to have a turnout of between 20% and 30%.

"I encourage people to take the opportunity to voice their opinions," he added. "I strongly believe our municipal elections are the most important elections we can participate in. These are the elections that have the most immediate impact on our day-to-day lives."


Katie McKellar

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