Election day is around the corner, on Tuesday, Nov. 8! Mail-in ballots were sent to voters on Oct. 18, and Oct. 28 was the last day to register to vote by mail (Grand County residents can still register to vote by provisional ballot through Election Day). Curious what happens to your ballot after you submit it? The Moab Sun News spoke with County Clerk/Auditor Gabriel Woytek about election procedures and security; Woytek also gave a short presentation to Grand County Commissioners at their Nov. 1 meeting. Woytek said he sees three pillars of election security: voter registration, the handling of the ballots, and the integrity of the equipment. The post-election audit provides another security check. Woytek is confident in the county’s continued dedication to accuracy and integrity in the election process.
Registering to vote
The deadline to register to vote online or by mail has passed, but you can still register to vote in person at the county clerk’s office through Election Day using what’s called a “provisional ballot.” A provisional ballot allows people to cast a vote even if there is something missing or unconfirmed on their voter registration; provisional ballots are not counted until the registration information is completed and verified. The deadline to “cure,” or complete and verify registration for, provisional ballots is Nov. 14.
State law requires that voters prove residency where they plan to vote. Grand County residents who don’t have an official address may still register to vote: the county allows the Moab Valley Multicultural Center to be used as a proxy.
Voters can drop off their completed ballots at the post office or at the county clerk’s office in the county building (125 E. Center Street). Ballots dropped off at the post office must be marked as “received” by Nov. 7; ballots can be submitted at the clerk’s office through 8 p.m. on Nov. 8.
Some community members have noticed that the local post office is currently understaffed: wait times for desk service are longer, and the office has had to close for a lunch hour because of short staffing. However, Woytek said this shouldn’t affect voting.
“As of now, there’s no expected effect on people’s ability to post-mark their ballots on time,” Woytek said. “We talk to them every day—they’re doing their best with the capacity and staffing that they have.”
Each day, county staff pick up ballots from the post office and count them before bringing them to the county building. Ballots are never handled with fewer than two county staff present. In the county building, the ballot envelopes are scanned: each has a bar code associated with a voter, and that information is checked against a state database of registered voters. This ensures each person gets one vote.
Then the ballots are sorted into batches of 50 and secured in a vault until it’s time to tabulate them on Election Day.
Voters can follow their mail-in ballots using the state voting website, votesearch.utah.gov/voter-search/voter/home/track-mail-ballot, or through the “ballottrax” service, available at ballottrax.utah.gov/voter.
Early in-person voting is available at the county clerk’s office, starting Nov. 2 and continuing through Nov. 7 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, which is Election Day, the county clerk’s office will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for ballot drop-off, in-person voting, and registration by provisional ballot.
During the in-person voting process, county staff first check that individuals are registered to vote in Grand County. Verified voters then feed a blank ballot into an ExpressVote machine and make their choices on a touch screen; the ballot is then printed with the voter’s choices marked. That ballot is sealed into an envelope which the voter must sign and the signature is verified.
The ExpressVote machine was audited ahead of the election, with each “ballot style” that will be used in the election—that is, ballots that reflect every district included in the election. County staff methodically tested each ballot style and checked that the machine printed out the choices correctly.
The county has been using a tabulating machine called the DS200 for several years. The tabulator doesn’t have the capacity to be connected to the internet; it’s also never connected to any networks. The machine is audited with a logic and accuracy test ahead of the election using a “test deck” of ballots filled out in a specific way. Those ballots are scanned and any errors would be apparent in the results.
Around mid-day on Election Day, Woytek said, staff can begin tabulating ballots. Major political parties in the election—in this case, Democratic and Republican—are invited to designate official poll watchers (each party is allowed one at a time.) Woytek said that both parties declined to designate poll watchers in this election. Registered voters may also sign up as individuals with the clerk’s office to be poll watchers.
Envelopes and ballots are separated to maintain voter privacy, and stored separately in batches. If the tabulator flags a ballot as somehow unreadable or compromised—for example, if a voter filled in a bubble, then crossed it out and filled in another bubble—that ballot is flagged. (It is acceptable to leave blanks on your ballot, if you don’t favor any of the candidates or don’t feel informed enough on a certain race to cast a vote.) Two county staff will review flagged ballots, and if the voter’s intention is clear, they can manually enter the vote. Flagged ballots are noted in the final election count results.
Woytek expects to be able to report the results to the state on Election Day night. Results are loaded onto a USB drive and transferred to the state via an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) transfer service.
As of Tuesday, Nov. 1, Woytek said there were 5,966 active registered voters in the county. Registration is still open, so more voters could register or re-activate their registrations before and on Election Day; there’s also no way to know how many people will participate. According to fairvote.org, the United States usually has a 40% turnout rate in midterm election years, though that percentage varies widely among localities.
“There’s always a good turn-out in Grand County, so we expect a good turn-out,” Woytek said.
Following Nov. 8, county staff will conduct a post-election audit. By state statute they must audit a minimum of 1% of cast ballots. Woytek said they’ll audit two batches of 50, which will exceed that requirement. Staff from the governor’s office select which batches will be reviewed, and county staff re-check signatures and voter registration information, and also make sure that the scanning machine tabulated the votes correctly.
At the Nov. 1 commission meeting, commissioners asked what circumstances could trigger a recount. Statute says that if a race is very close—within a quarter of a percent of the vote—the losing candidate can request a recount.
Woytek said his office of five staff members is diligently processing ballots as they come in, and looks forward to a busy Election Day. He joins a weekly call with the Lieutenant Governor and clerks from Utah’s 28 other counties to discuss how the process is going, troubleshoot problems and share solutions, and he’s pleased to report things are so far going fairly smoothly in Grand County.
The June primary elections offered county staff a “warm-up” for this cycle, and this midterm election, Woytek said, will in turn help prepare staff for the major election in 2024. In between now and then, the office will still have another election to run: the county administers elections for the City of Moab, which will have an election in 2023.