SALT LAKE CITY — With the midterm election less than a month away, some county clerks may not be up to speed on a new, day-of voter registration option, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
The ACLU characterized its findings as causing "grave concern," and ones that could lead to potential voters being turned away from polling locations due to uninformed election workers.
An informal survey of eight county clerks' offices conducted by the ACLU found anomalies that included a failure to post updated information on Election Day registration by two counties; an inability to confirm that poll workers were trained in the new program by three counties; and a contention, made repeatedly by an employee at one clerk's office, that the vote-by-mail system had "eliminated" the need for Election Day registration. Another issue uncovered by the ACLU included voter information on one county's website from 2016 that had not been updated.
ACLU of Utah's legislative and policy counsel Marina Lowe said the issue surfaced when a staffer came across a county clerk's website that did not include any information about the new Election Day voter registration and, on additional inquiry, encountered further issues.
"We have a long history of interest in making it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, and we've worked for many years to help get the legislation passed in Utah to get this policy implemented," Lowe said. "Enacting is one part of the effort, but in order to have success, the people on the ground need to be ready to implement that policy."
Lowe said staffers began reaching out to some county clerks with a short list of questions about Election Day registration preparedness that covered worker training, public noticing on websites and how polling places would be staffed and stocked to accommodate those who may wish to register and cast a vote during early voting as well as Election Day voting. She noted that while not all 29 Utah counties were contacted by the ACLU, the number of issues that arose just in the surveyed group was enough to raise concerns.
Those concerns are shared by the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office, which oversees state elections, according to State Election Director Justin Lee. Lee explained that while the state does oversee the election process and coordinates certain processes, the statutory responsibilities of conducting elections, and all that goes with it, falls under the purview of clerks.
"The way the system is set up, there are certain responsibilities given to the lieutenant governor's office and certain responsibilities given to county clerks," Lee said. "For instance, poll worker training and hiring is all done by the clerks."
Lee noted that while statute defines the different roles, his office was there to support the work of Utah's county clerks and, upon hearing about the ACLU's survey findings on Thursday, sent out communications to every county to highlight the necessity of getting current on staff training and public communications about the new Election Day registration policy.
"We're absolutely glad to have been made aware of it, and if there's an issue out there, that needs to be addressed. We want to help take care of it," Lee said.
While the ACLU declined to identify which counties it had spoken to, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said her office, which will deploy about 350 poll workers for early voting and Election Day operations, is up to speed and noted the new Election Day registration protocols didn't present anything new or unfamiliar.
"The Election Day registration process is essentially identical to the issuance of a provisional ballot, which has been part of the process for years," Swensen said. "The process is the same … the training for it is the same as dealing with any other provisional voter."
Swensen's office was one of a handful across the state that previously participated in a trial run of the Election Day registration process, which Lee noted was conducted in about a half-dozen Utah counties between 2014 and 2016.
Utah Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored last session's HB218, the legislation that created the Election Day registration option. Chavez-Houck said she was confident the counties that participated in the trial efforts were ready to go, but she was concerned about inconsistencies and an apparent lack of preparation in some areas.19 comments on this story
"Finding out that some places aren't up to speed on this is concerning," Chavez-Houck said. "When we implement something statewide that's about improving access to voting and participating in our elections, the goal is to ensure that everyone is having the same experience, regardless of where they are voting."
Both Chavez-Houck and Lee said the upside of the ACLU's findings is that there is still time ahead of the Nov. 6 election for clerks to ensure their staffs and public communications were up to date. Lee noted his office will be following up on Wednesday's communication to clerks statewide to help ensure the new registration process is appropriately available across the state.