Election Day? More like 'Election Month' for county clerks after mail-ins, virus changes

Election Day? More like 'Election Month' for county clerks after mail-ins, virus changes

(Kristin Murphy, KSL, File)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A lot has changed since 1988.

Just ask Jill Zollinger. The Cache County clerk/auditor has served in the clerk's office since then. She's seen the rise of mail-in voting and new vote-processing technologies.

Throw in the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered in-person Election Day voting in Utah, and this June's primary elections have turned into more of a marathon than a sprint. That was true of the voting process, and — depending on how close races are — may be true of the results as well.

For Zollinger, though, the changes have been mostly welcome and positive.

"I really do like the by-mail process," she told KSL.com Tuesday evening. "I think that — it's not like it's less work, it's just different work, and I think, for the clerks, more manageable."

In years past, Zollinger said, clerks had to train a small army of poll workers for a brief election window and make sure they knew the ins and outs of election law. The rise of mail-in ballots has made that training easier, she said.

Over in Tooele County, County Clerk Marilyn Gillette said the coronavirus has rendered election night largely uneventful for her staff.

"One of the candidates wanted to have poll watchers come tonight," Gillette said. "Well, there's nothing to see tonight, because we are quarantining our ballots for three days. So every (ballot) that we've got in that we could do has already been ran through."

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So Tuesday night's results from Tooele will only reflect the state of the races in the county as of Friday; Gillette said the county had already received about two-thirds of its regular turnout before Election Day. Cache County is also quarantining its ballots, and Zollinger said about 30% of Cache registered voters returned ballots in advance.

The latest vote-counting machines have been a "dream come true" for Gillette's staff — much faster and easier to use than previous iterations.

"I've been here a long time," she laughed. "I started with punch cards."

But the increase in turnout that mail-in voting brings has kept her staff plenty busy, she said.

This election will be different for her team, she said, with so many ballots to count after primary voting; usually by Tuesday night the county has counted 90% of its vote already, she said. So even though Gillette said early returns tend to forecast final results — "Whoever's ahead tonight will probably still be ahead after we put the rest of the ballots in," she said — particularly close elections will be worth keeping an eye on with so many more ballots coming in.

Down in Mt. Pleasant, gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox acknowledged he might have to wait a while to know how the race has turned out for him.

"I think that's very possible," Cox said at his watch party. "We expect because of the turnout and the amount of ballots that went out today that tens of thousands of ballots — maybe even upwards of 100,000 ballots — will not have been counted. We’ll know a little more tonight, but I think it’s very possible we won’t have a declared winner.

"We’ll at least get a good sense of who’s leading, and what the next week will look like," he said.

Along with other coronavirus-related changes made by the Utah Legislature for Tuesday's vote, the canvassing process — making sure all ballots have been received and accurately counted — was extended from two weeks to three weeks after primary voting, though most races will be decided long before then. That means that, between ballots being mailed out the week of June 8 and the official end of canvassing on July 21, this year's primary election will be keeping clerks busy for up to six consecutive weeks.

If voting by mail becomes more prevalent in the state and country, gone may be the days of election-night certainties and jubilant watch parties with victory assured. Still, Zollinger said she hopes people will "grasp on" to the vote-by-mail process.

"I just hope people will embrace it," she said, "and make the best of it, and use it to improve our voting process."

Contributing: Sean Walker, KSL.com

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