SALT LAKE CITY — More than 1 million Utahns have already cast their ballots in Tuesday's election, the biggest voter turnout ever in the state before Election Day.
"We're on pace for record turnout," Utah Elections Director Justin Lee said shortly after the state surpassed the 1 million mark in the number of ballots counted statewide midday Monday. "We've never seen this many ballots processed this early."
Lee said about 60% of Utah's active voters have cast their ballots, either by mail or in person last week during early voting. In the last presidential election four years ago, turnout was the highest in decades at 82%, with more than 1.15 million votes cast.
"We expect there are still plenty of voters who will drop off ballots" on Election Day, Lee said, adding he will be surprised if that record doesn't fall this year. The race between GOP President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the ticket is driving huge voter turnout around the country.
Voters in Utah, one of a handful of states that conducted elections largely by mail before the coronavirus pandemic, have been encouraged to return the ballots they were mailed in mid-October early because of COVID-19's impact on tabulating results.
Monday, the Summit County Clerk's Office reported it is under quarantine until Friday after a "positive exposure" to the virus. The clerk intends to post results Tuesday from approximately 18,000 ballots that had been received through Oct. 30 and tally the rest as soon as health officials clear the office to continue counting.
Mailed ballots must be postmarked by Monday to be counted. Election officials say voters should use ballot drop boxes located throughout the state, although ballots also can be turned in at voting centers on Election Day. Those centers are intended for Utahns who didn't receive a ballot or need other assistance, such as registering to vote.
"I think we will have people who are just determined to vote on Election Day and just show up anyway. That's a concern," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, because of the health precautions, including social distancing, required at the voting centers.
Swensen said Salt Lake County turnout was at about two-thirds of active voters by midday Monday, a figure that did not include some 21,000 residents who voted early in person at a dozen locations open through last week, or the ballots being dropped off the day before Election Day.
Salt Lake County alone will have 59 voting centers open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, including at the Vivint Smart Home Arena. Swensen said she's worried some voters will head there thinking they'll be on the home court of the Utah Jazz, but voting will take place in the mezzanine.
Her advice to voters who still have their ballots is to fill them out and drop them off. She said her office has been "wild crazy busy," even working last Sunday, to process the ballots that have been received. The first results will be released after the polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
Lee cautioned that the results won't be final until the state completes the vote canvass on Nov. 23, although counties certify results one or two weeks after the election. The numbers released election night will be updated throughout the evening, then starting as soon as Wednesday afternoon, he said, as more by-mail ballots are received.
It could "take a while," Lee said, to determine the outcome of one of the nation's most competitive congressional races, Utah's 4th District contest between Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens. It took two weeks in 2018 to determine McAdams had defeated two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes.
Waiting on results "is nothing new in Utah," Lee said, although there's been a "trickling down" to Utah voters of claims made by the president that voting by mail across the country "is going to be a fraud like you've never seen" and that votes shouldn't be counted after Election Day.
A few voters have raised such concerns with his office, Lee said.
"We've always had a few people who don't like vote by mail. We've also had a few people who don't like the machines. There's not really a system everybody likes. You're not going to make everyone happy," he said. "But I think we can see by the numbers we have already that our voters trust vote by mail. Our voters are using it."
Swensen said voters are being notified if a problem surfaces with their ballot, but she's still hearing from county residents worried their signature may not exactly match what's on file or that they forget to use the security sleeve provided by the county.
"We don't look for any reason not to validate a ballot or count it. We count everything we possibly can. We don't have excuses," she said, noting some states are more stringent, rejecting ballots without the sleeves. "People hear those stories and think that we're doing things to try to invalidate their ballot. Utah is so much better than that."
Information on voting is available at vote.utah.gov.
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.