Between 1,200 and 2,000 ballots weren’t sent out to Cache County voters due to a printer malfunction, but when officials were made aware, they thought they’d corrected it.
Some voters, however, have questioned whether the missing ballots are a sign that something nefarious happened during the election. But according to County Clerk Jess Bradfield, it's just a result of overwhelming turnout and a system that hasn't grown with Cache County.
Boxes of ballots were delivered from Salt Lake City overnight and envelopes were hand-addressed by the staff at the County Clerk’s Office, but many said they still never received a ballot in time, like Casey Spackman, of Trenton.
Spackman learned the reason upon arrival at the Cache County Event Center to fill out a provisional ballot: it went to a P.O. Box.
According to Bradfield, little things like that are the main reason some people never receive their ballots in the mail, such as not updating addresses upon moving.
But this year, a mistake at the printer lead to a much broader problem.
“We checked our list that we sent to the printer, and if a person’s name didn't show up on the printer’s list, then we sent them out again,” Bradfield said. “We hand-wrote all of those envelopes to them and made sure that they were sent out. And then if people called again, we would send them another one, just to make sure that they received it. And then we would tell them, ‘Please come in and vote at the election center.’”
Bradfield said it’s hard to say how many of the 4,750 people who cast provisional ballots at the event center on Tuesday were among the individuals whose ballots were not sent by the printer initially.
But Angie Stoddard Jackson’s 78-year old mother was not among them.
“She's elderly and on long-term hospice care,” Jackson wrote to The Herald Journal. “About a month ago I updated her voting information, her address etc. … Shortly after, my husband, myself and my son all received our ballots in the mail. I checked my mom's status (on the state's online ballot tracker) and hers said that it had been mailed. This was at least 2 weeks before Nov. 2nd. ”
Though the rest of the family received their ballots within a few weeks, Karen Stoddard’s never came.
“It was a bit maddening, and my mom was so upset about it,” she wrote. “(It was) Her first time not voting.”
Bradfield said a system was in place for staff to go to houses so people could fill out their ballots without leaving their homes. It was designed for those who were in quarantine due to COVID-19 but available to anyone, but the service was not highly advertised.
Some have pointed to the ballot-kerfuffle as evidence of voter fraud or election tampering, though Utah has been conducting elections via mail since 2013. However, the expanded practice due to the novel coronavirus and the perceived high stakes of the 2020 election have put a magnifying lens on the process, according to Bradfield.
“We do see some people trying to get away with fraud,” he said. “But our systems are so advanced that if your signature does not match, and we have multiple signatures on file to compare it against, if your signature is even off by a little bit, it's going to flag it, and then we manually review every signature that our system flags.”
Bradfield said he could count the number of people who committed ballot fraud — a Class A Misdemeanor in Utah — “on one hand in Cache County,” but that’s because of the state’s history with accepting mailed-in and absentee ballots.
“Utah understands mail-in elections,” he said. “We take precautions. And if there's any evidence of malfeasance, we take immediate action.”
Another reason some were calling foul on election results was the amount of time it’s taken to count and process ballots, but Bradfield argued that's how elections work. On Election Night, the county had received and processed 53,489 ballots from the 63,833 registered voters in the county — an 83.8% turnout.
But that didn’t count ballots dropped off that day, mailed the day before or the provisional ballots from those who voted in-person at the event center.
And while mail-in ballots are still trickling in, Utah is not taking nearly as long as states whose governments prohibited them from counting early votes before Election Day.
“We've never seen this many provisionals, not even close,” he said, “and so it's taking all of our staff's time to try and go through them, and you have to look them up.”
Bradfield said by the time the remaining ballots are counted, the election will prove to be both the highest number of voters to cast a ballot and the highest turnout — roughly 89% he estimated — in the county’s history.
While the process hasn’t changed, the number of provisional ballots has only grown with the county.
“Where before we only received 1,000 (provisional ballots), it took us a few days and we were done,” Bradfield said. “Now we have almost 5,000 provisionals. So we're investing in automatic ballot scanners that will allow people to complete their ballots at the booth and then scan it in. And at the end of the night, all we have to do is take the information from the ballot scanners and combine it to our regular scanned ballots.”
Bradfield said the county is already planning for upgrades, with $150,000 allocated for the technology above.