SALT LAKE CITY — With Election Day less than two weeks away, thousands of Utah registered voters have already begun casting their ballots.
With so many high-profile offices at stake, elevated voter turnout is expected, so state elections officials are making a concerted effort to safeguard the integrity of the process.
"Of registered voters, we received about 15.5% at this point — which is just under 260,000 voters," said Utah Elections Director Justin Lee. "To put it in a little bit of perspective, turnout-wise in 2016 we had about 1.1 million voters. At 260,000 ballots, we're basically at a quarter of that now. So, a quarter of what we saw in 2016 has already voted in the first week of voting, which is a big deal."
Regarding local turnout thus far, Lee said the numbers of individuals engaging in pre-Election Day voting has already given a strong impression of the enthusiasm voters seem to have about participating in 2020's democratic process.
"Certainly, getting this many ballots this early is bigger than we've seen in past elections," he noted. "That's great, and it's what we want to see from voters, particularly in a year with a pandemic. We want people to vote by mail, by putting their ballot in a drop box and avoiding any kind of long lines on Election Day, so this is great."
He said approximately 1.66 million Utahns are registered to vote this year, with a few more days still remaining for more to join the rolls.
"You can still register through this Friday at 5 p.m.," Lee said. "And if you miss that deadline, you can still actually go to the polls and register and vote in person."
Early voting at polling places started Tuesday and varies from county to county, he said, with each county required to have at least four days of early voting in the two weeks prior to the election. The last day for early voting statewide is Oct. 30.
"If someone really wants to go in person, (voting) in person early is a great alternative to going on Election Day," Lee said. With so many voters expected this year, lines to vote may be longer in some locations than others, officials have advised.
Mail-in ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 2 to be included in the Election Day count, Lee said. In addition, drop boxes located throughout the state are available through Election Day, Nov. 3, he added.
In Utah's most populous county, voter turnout is already at a robust level, with about 16% of ballots already cast, said Lannie Chapman, Salt Lake County chief deputy clerk.
"People are really (submitting) their ballots and dropping them in drop boxes," she said. "(On Oct. 20), we started early voting and the amount of people that have come and participated in the early voting — we haven't seen numbers like this in a very long time, since before vote by mail was the primary way that we held elections (in 2014)."
She said the county is encouraging people to make voting by mail their primary method of casting ballots, but she noted that despite the large early turnout, various measures have been taken to help maintain safety for those who choose to vote in person.
"People are wearing their masks, they are social distancing, they're doing what they're supposed to do," Chapman said. "We're getting them in and out as quickly and safely as we can."
Meanwhile, earlier this week, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber announced that assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Clark will lead efforts in the Beehive State in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department's nationwide Election Day program. Clark is tasked with coordinating with local election officials and DOJ to ensure that all qualified voters in Utah are able to cast their ballots and have them counted free of discrimination, intimidation or fraud during the election process, according to a news release.
"Although Utah has a history of conducting problem-free elections, we want to make sure residents of Utah know that reports of fraud or abuse will be taken seriously. Election fraud and voting rights abuses dilute the worth of votes honestly cast. They also corrupt the essence of our representative form of government," Huber said. "Whether a Utah voter is mailing in a ballot or voting in person, anyone who has specific information about election fraud or discrimination should pass that information on to my office or to the FBI."
Lee said, thus far, there have been no major problems in Utah regarding voting irregularities, but the state is cooperating to certify all properly cast ballots.
"Before big federal elections, the Justice Department is always on alert and ready in case there are any issues," he said. "We are in constant communication with DOJ and we work with the FBI on a regular basis prepping and talking. It's not particularly unusual to have (an elections officer monitoring)."
Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3.
States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud.
The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.