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Jill Zollinger poses for a portrait outside the Historic Courthouse in 2013.

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Cache County residents were casting their votes by mail — and doing it with few issues — long before the process became a national controversy.

Concerns about conducting the presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic have led many states to consider following the lead of Utah and other states that have pioneered mail-balloting, but President Donald Trump and his supporters are claiming the system is ripe for fraud. Further complicating the situation is the U.S. Postal Service’s concern that without additional funding, it won’t be able to process mail-in ballots in a timely manner in some states.

Even with a mail-in ballot system, Utah counties until this year were retaining a limited number of polling sites for election-day voting. But in a special session in June, the Utah Legislature eliminated that option for the June 30 primary election due to concerns about spreading the virus. The Legislature will convene this week to reconsider that issue and other matters related to mail-in balloting.

With all of this going on, The Herald Journal thought it would be a good time to check in with Cache County Clerk Jill Zollinger, who has shepherded area voters through the transition to mail-in balloting over the past decade and a half. Following is a slightly condensed version of that interview:

Herald Journal: How did Cache County get started with voting by mail?

Jill Zollinger: It was in 2006. The state was looking at it and there was an opportunity to be a pilot, and so we started with some primary elections because there were some low turnouts with some cities, and we thought, “We’ll let’s see if we can get some better turnout.” So we tried it and we did get better turnout — extremely better turnout. The state at that time was in the process of looking at replacing election equipment, and it was very expensive to buy the equipment. Before, when we had federal funding to purchase the equipment we had prior, that was an incentive to have that electronic equipment. Then when we didn’t have that funding and they (state officials) had seen the increase in turnout with doing it by mail, they were interested in that … so that’s the direction it took.

HJ: Besides higher turnout, have there been other advantages to mail-in balloting?

JZ: I think what people like about voting by mail is they’re getting their ballots at home and being able to see the ballot, look and see what’s on their ballot, and study candidates and propositions. For instance, there are six or seven constitutional amendments that are going to be on the ballot this time, and they’re quite lengthy. A lot of time we were getting people here at the polls who would get in the booth and go, “Oh, I didn’t know this was going to be on my ballot.” The difference of that ballot going to their home and being able to study their ballot for up to two weeks before sending it in or dropping it in a ballot box I think is something people like.

HJ: Have you ever experienced any problem with the mail system?

JZ: No, we haven’t had a problem. The only problem that we’ve had ... was with ballots that should have gone out sooner than they did, and that was an error with our company that we we’re using … They dropped the ball, so to speak, but they did fix it. They got the ballots out as soon as they found the error, which was still in time. It just wasn’t the day we said they should be out. In my mind it didn’t affect the election, but, you know, things like that can happen, but it wasn’t the mail.

HJ: Have you ever run into a case of suspected fraud involving any mail-in ballots?

JZ: No. Most of the things we’re seeing are people that get their ballots mixed up, like a husband and wife who sign each other’s ballots by accident, and we’ll notify them when that happens and say you need to rectify that … things like that. We catch it because we match up signatures and ballots. When people think that we don’t look at the signatures, we do. We have a machine that does it, that looks at the signatures, and then if the signatures don’t match up, we have people that look at them … Sometimes it can even be older people that say something like, “Oh yeah, I’ve broken my wrist and my signature isn’t quite the same,” or we’ll have people that sign different just to see if we’ll notice.

HJ: Are votes in these instances not counted until you’ve rectified the situation?

JZ: Yes.

HJ: The idea that somebody could counterfeit a bunch of ballots and send them in to you — aren’t they going to have to have real people’s names on them and real signatures? That would be quite a process.

JZ: It would. It would. And it is against the law, and I will say this. Any system can be manipulated probably, and they can do things that they shouldn’t, but it’s all against the law.

HJ: Could you also cheat the old balloting system in just as many ways?

JZ: Yes, I would say so. There’s all kinds of ways, even before. Any kind of system we’ve had, people have said this could be cheated.

HJ: Do you feel comfortable with our voting system?

JZ: Yes. If you talked to the governor, he would say the same thing and so would the lieutenant governor. Our by-mail system is good.

HJ: With the problems going on with the Postal Service, do you foresee a delay this November like we’ve never seen before in Cache County or in Utah?

JZ: I don’t think so. I have not heard that there would be, and I don’t believe that that would happen. It was over the weekend I think that Sen. Romney was on an interview and I think he said the same thing. He didn’t think that was going to happen in Utah. I think he would be in a position to see what was going on ... I think we have good postal workers here. They’ve always been so good to get our ballots and we’ve always worked really closely with them about when we expect the ballots to go out, and so they know what to watch for and they are very good about getting those ballots where they need to be. And we are usually advertising in the paper and on the radio and telling people when the ballots are going out and to watch for them in the mail and if you haven’t received your ballot to give us a call and we’ll see what might be the problem. Sometimes people haven’t updated their addresses, and so that ballot could be going to a wrong address, and so, yeah, they wouldn’t be getting it, or they might not have an apartment number on it. There can be a lot of issues with why they might not be getting their ballot, and we can fix it, especially if they get ahold of us ahead of time. The one thing that they don’t want to do is wait until the election because, especially in a presidential election and with all the things in the news, it’s just better to try to be ahead of the game … the ballot is going to be long, so if you want to be on top of things, get your ballot ahead of time, study it, be an informed voter.

HJ: Are you worried that the national election will end in chaos?

HZ: Let me just say I hope not. Nobody wants that. We’ve had enough things that haven’t gone well this year that we don’t need that.

Charlie McCollum is the managing editor of The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cmccollum@hjnews.com or 435-792-7220.

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