Grand County’s move to a vote-by-mail election system was met with some controversy and skepticism, but despite some lingering concerns about public outreach efforts, poll watchers say the process is working well now.
“I think that people can have confidence that this election has been conducted fair and square,” Grand County Democratic Party chairman and poll watcher Bob Greenberg said Oct. 27.
As of press time this week, 37 percent of the county’s registered voters had returned their mail-in ballots ahead of the Nov. 4 general election. That’s almost on par with the total voter turnout in 2006, and more than three and a half times the statewide average so far this year, according to Grand County Clerk Diana Carroll.
Of course, the election is not over yet: Voters will have until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4 to return their mail-in ballots, and once the last ballot has been processed, Carroll is hoping that overall turnout will reach 70 percent.
As Carroll’s office continues to process those ballots, it’s following specific procedures designed to ease any concerns that voters may have about the upcoming election, according to Greenberg.
“The actual election process is open to public scrutiny, and it’s pretty transparent,” he said.
Under the agreement he and others have worked out, Carroll’s office has set aside four hours each weekday morning to process mail-in ballots in the presence of poll watchers.
“She developed a schedule that met her needs and our needs, as well,” Greenberg said.
Utah Deputy Elections Director Justin Lee said that as far as he knows, the agreement is one of a kind.
“I don’t know of any other county that has the same kind of schedule worked out with poll watchers,” Lee said. “I’m not aware of any other county that’s been that accommodating.”
As his office looked into some of the concerns that one poll watcher in particular raised, Lee said he found that Carroll has been receptive to any suggestions that could improve the process.
“Any time when there’s been a procedure that may be done better, she’s said, ‘hey, maybe we’ll look at this,’” Lee said.
But it took everyone a while to get to this point, and there were some bumps along the way, according to Greenberg.
“Part of it is, it’s a new process, and I don’t think anyone knew how complicated it would be,” he said.
The tradition of going to the polls on election day was a very public process, and now, Greenberg thinks some voters are placing their ballots into a box and “kind of” wondering what happens to them.
According to Greenberg, that uncertainty has fueled anxiety and skepticism among some people.
One poll watcher accused Carroll’s office of improperly handling ballots when members of the public were not present over the Columbus Day weekend. But that allegation was ultimately found to be baseless, according to Greenberg.
“Her concerns have been investigated, and there was nothing improper,” he said.
If other concerns are still out there, Carroll said her office is only too happy to answer any questions that voters or poll watchers may have about the way her office handles mail-in ballots.
“I’m glad that they do ask the questions, because it does set their minds at ease,” she said.
Carroll said she tried to anticipate and answer many of those questions ahead of time, noting that the switch to a vote-by-mail system received extensive local media coverage earlier this year. During that time, her office also corrected an estimated 1,200 voter records ― a “huge” accomplishment, in her words.
“I don’t think there’s anything more that we could have done,” she said.
However, both Greenberg and Moab resident Eve Tallman think that Carroll’s office could have done more to get the word out.
Tallman said the Grand County League of Women Voters has stepped up with its own voter outreach campaign. But Tallman thinks it would have been helpful if Carroll had allowed voters to review her plans for mail-in voting, instead of adopting them without public input.
In any event, Tallman wishes that Carroll had left the door open to in-person voting at the polls on election day.
Now that the option is no longer available, Tallman is concerned that it could create some confusion for voters like one woman she recently spoke with.
“She said she was just going to go in person and vote,” Tallman said.
Poll watcher Trish Hawkins said she’s heard from others who threw away their mail-in ballots, based on the mistaken assumption that they can vote at traditional polling places on Nov. 4.
If other voters do the same thing, Carroll assures them that they can pick up replacement mail-in ballots from her office.
“We can reissue the ballots, so it’s not a problem,” she said.
Another problem has popped up in the form of active registered voters who say they have not received mail-in ballots, according to Tallman and Greenberg: By one estimate, one in seven active voters who were recently canvassed said they hadn’t received anything in the mail yet, Tallman said.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for voters who are already registered in Grand County: They can contact the clerk’s office at 435-259-1321. Additional information about the upcoming election can also be found at http://www.grandcountyutah.net/612/Elections.
Anyone who has general questions about the election process or vote-by-mail system is encouraged to get in touch with the county clerk’s office.
“If anyone wants to observe or is concerned about the process, feel free to drop by,” Carroll said.
State official says Carroll’s office has been highly accommodating of poll watchers