PROVO — After the 2018 midterm elections, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called Utah County the “epicenter of dysfunction” for the long lines and wait times that greeted voters on Election Day.
Last week’s municipal elections, administered by the cities under contract with the county, marked the first November vote under new county clerk Amelia Powers Gardner. But Powers Gardner had more on her plate than improving the voting experience — the county also oversaw the use of ranked-choice voting in two towns and offered a mobile voting application, Voatz, for voters overseas and those with disabilities.
Overall, Powers Gardner said the election was a smooth success.
“The feedback I’ve received from every city is that this is the best election they’ve seen,” she said. “There were no lines at any polling location.”
Most of the county’s races have been decided well in advance of next Tuesday’s canvass, which marks the official end of the vote-counting process. But in Orem, where voters selected among six candidates to fill three city council seats, the outcome is still unclear. Terry Peterson and Jeffrey Lambson are in the lead for the first two council seats. Debby Lauret currently leads Sam Lentz, both incumbents, by only 12 votes — 6,720 to 6,708 — for the third and final position.
Powers Gardner said there are still a handful of votes trickling in every day, countywide. The margin in the race is so close, she said, that after Tuesday’s canvass the trailing candidate can request a recount if they choose to.
“That race is close enough that if the candidate who falls below the line asks for a recount, then we will be obligated to do one,” she said. “We’ll bring in the candidates, show them everything we have, talk to them; and then if they ask, then it’s within the margin of error.”
The communities of Payson and Vineyard, meanwhile, pioneered the use of ranked-choice voting in the general election to choose city council members. In Payson, Doug Welton, Brian Hulet and Linda Carter won seats; in Vineyard, Cristy Welsh and Tyce Flake prevailed.
Powers Gardner said the cities and her office were prepared to answer lots of questions about ranked-choice voting on Election Day, but they were pleasantly surprised to see the process work without confusion. “I tend to run with the philosophy that we should over prepare for everything,” she said. “We expected there to be more issues.
“There really weren’t any questions … The questions coming from people in Vineyard and Payson weren’t about ranked-choice voting. They were the same questions that we got from everybody.”
Additionally, Powers Gardner said she’s received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the voting system based on a survey her office sent to Vineyard and Payson voters. Twenty-four hours after sending the email survey, she said, more than 10% of recipients had responded; 85% of them favored using ranked-choice voting again in the future.
Powers Gardner will share the final survey results with the lieutenant governor’s office for reporting to the state Legislature.
Finally, Utah County expanded the use of the mobile voting application Voatz for the November elections. In the August primary, the county offered it to overseas voters — sometimes called “UOCAVA voters,” referring to the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act — as an alternative to mailed paper ballots or emailed ballots.
This time, the county also offered Voatz to voters with disabilities who can request accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
All told, Powers Gardner said 64 voters used Voatz to cast their ballots — 55 overseas and nine with disabilities.
The 43.5% turnout of UOCAVA voters, she said, was higher than the overall election turnout of 33.5%.
“Frankly, I kind of expected there to be a little more hardship with it because some of the disabled population tend to also be elderly, and it’s technology, so there's always that assumption that maybe it's going to be a little more difficult,” Powers Gardner said. “But we didn’t find that to be true.”
For example, she said, 106-year-old MacCene Grimmett had little trouble casting her ballot using Voatz.
Hilary Braseth, Voatz’s director of product, said it’s been a “real pleasure” to partner with Utah County so far. “They … are the first county to also offer this method of voting to voters with disabilities,” Braseth said. “We just continue to applaud their efforts at making voting as accessible — and also, really, just operationally sound — as possible.”
Utah County is inviting residents to help audit the Voatz ballots. In a Wednesday Facebook livestream, Powers Gardner and Forrest Senti of the National Cybersecurity Center talked through the process of auditing the votes.
Those interested can sign up to audit here.
Powers Gardner said, overall, the election wasn’t perfect, but it was a great experience to prepare for 2020.
“There were a couple of hiccups that we had, but they weren't big at all and we were able to compensate for them. And the beauty of that is that we learned in a smaller year rather than a presidential year,” she said.
The Utah County elections website — which was in dire need of an update when Powers Gardner took office, she said — crashed on election night because of high traffic. “No one ever checked our website before, so we’ve never had that type of traffic before,” Powers Gardner said.
“This is a great election to learn that in, because we don’t want that to happen in a presidential year.”