Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — After working to learn why a deceased West Valley City man was mailed a ballot to vote in the 2019 general election, KSL Investigators revealed a mailed ballot mishap at the state level that resulted from a three-day period of time where deaths were not reported to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. The office maintains the state’s voter registration database.
Merlynn Brewer contacted KSL after noticing the mailed ballot addressed to her friend’s deceased husband.
Brewer does what she can for her friend and former neighbor, Linda, because the widow has dementia and suffers from other health issues. To lend a hand, Brewer picks up Linda’s mail and walks it into her home almost every day.
“We just pick up the mail so that if there’s anything important that comes, we can make sure it gets handled,” Brewer said.
When she picked up the mail one day in the middle of October, she didn’t expect what she saw at the top of the pile.
“It was like, ‘Wow! They sent Ray a ballot,’” Brewer said. “I wonder how many other dead people are voting this election?”
With the family of Linda and Ray’s blessing, we are using only their first names in this story to protect their identities and Linda’s health.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Brewer added in disbelief. “If I decide to open Ray’s ballot and vote for him and sign his name, you know, is that going to go through or not?”
Linda’s husband, Ray, passed away on Jan. 29, 2019 – more than eight months ago.
“I would assume, and maybe that’s an incorrect assumption, that the medical records are on file, that they wouldn’t be sending out official ballots for deceased people,” Brewer said. “Was that just overlooked? Was it not reported to someone? Where are they getting the records? Where did Salt Lake County miss this? Was it an oversight? How many oversights are there?”
After KSL Investigators spent a week asking questions of Salt Lake County and the state of Utah, we uncovered a “human error” that was unknown to any of the agencies we spoke with until we got involved.
The Utah Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records and Statistics is to blame for the “human error.”
With any human process, there's ... a possibility that human error occurs, and it looks like thats's what happened here.
–Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health
That office is responsible for registering and certifying vital events in Utah, including births, deaths and adoptions. The office issued Ray’s death certificate earlier this year.
"With any human process, there’s you know, a possibility that human error occurs, and it looks like that’s what happened here,” said Tom Hudachko, director of communications for the Utah Department of Health.
Hudachko explained the Office of Vital Records and Statistics sends a record of deaths to Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox’s office once every two weeks, or twice each month. The office does this so the Lieutenant Governor’s office – the state election office – can remove the deceased individuals who have passed away since the last record was transferred from the voter registration database.
KSL uncovered that the employee responsible for the second January 2019 file transfer missed a few days. Hudachko confirmed the Lieutenant Governor’s Office did not receive state death reports for anyone who died on January 29, 30 or 31 — including Ray, who passed away on Jan. 29.
We now know Ray was one of 91 people whose deaths were not reported to the state election office.
The missing data wasn’t realized until KSL Investigators began asking questions, ensuring county and state agencies that Ray did, in fact, have a death certificate on file.
Cox’s office confirmed that none of those people have voted in this election, meaning no one had tried to submit a fraudulent ballot.
A representative with Cox’s office told KSL the entire list of 91 people had been reviewed and many names had already been removed from the voter rolls or simply, were not registered voters. Of the 91 deaths that were registered voters, like Ray, we were told there were “a handful” that were sent a ballot.
A ballot going out is one thing, but an actual ballot being cast is something entirely different.
–Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health
The Lieutenant Governor’s Office confirmed to KSL that the counties will process those applicable names and the lists will be cleaned up.
“A ballot going out is one thing, but an actual ballot being cast is something entirely different,” Hudachko said.
Regardless, Brewer said the fact that ballots were sent out to dead people at all is a problem and a waste.
“How much paper, ink, time… the time aspect of someone preparing those and sending them out is a huge waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” Brewer said. “And now it’s going to go in the garbage.”
Salt Lake County Clerk: “It isn’t always that easy"
When we sat down with Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, she told us that Brewer should not be concerned about voter fraud because, for every ballot returned by mail, the signature on the ballot envelope affidavit is compared to the signature on the voter’s registration card. That is the version of identification that is required for voting by mail, she explained.
“The failsafe is we check signatures. We verify a signature for every ballot before we accept it,” Swensen said.
As is indicated on the mailed ballot, it is a felony for someone to forge another person’s signature on a ballot.
In addition to the Office of Vital Records and Statistics’ work to scrub the voter rolls of anyone who has died every two weeks, Swensen said her office takes other precautions as well.
“My staff, on an ongoing basis, have an assignment to go through obituaries and check — and again, they have to be sure with an obituary before they put someone in that removable status,” Swensen said.
“Removable,” meaning a voter has been identified as deceased.
Ray did not have an obituary.
However, his death was one of 772 in January this year in Salt Lake County, according to county officials.
In fact, Salt Lake County – the same county that sent Ray the ballot — was also stamped on his death certificate.
Bottom line? There’s no “perfect system” to track the voter registration status of deceased individuals.
“When that person registered to vote, they may have been living somewhere else, they may have had even a different name,” Swensen said. “They may have registered with a shorter name they’ve made. For a woman, it may have been a married name versus a different name. So, it isn’t always that easy.”
Swensen said it is not required for surviving family members to contact the county clerk’s office to inform them of a loved one’s death and therefore, suspended voter registration status, but said it is helpful.
“It’s nice that they do. It helps us keep our listed updated,” Swensen said.