Salt Lake County election center to see increased security

Salt Lake County is stepping up security at its ballot-processing center after state lawmakers granted the public closer access to election workers.

In past years, the county staffed its election headquarters at the County Government Center with one sheriff’s deputy on Election Day. This year, three deputies will be on duty at the location throughout the entire ballot-tabulating period, which began Friday.

Longtime County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, overseeing her final election, said the move is not so much a response to the heated political climate, with election officials across the country facing increased scrutiny and threats. It’s more a reaction to a provision in HB387, which grants observers the right to be no more than 6 feet from election processes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County’s ballot-processing center on the first day mail-in ballots began arriving, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

“We have a lot of things going on, and in order to make sure that the poll watchers can see all of our processes and be no further away than 6 feet, and to secure our ballots,” Swensen said, “it’s necessary to have more security.”

Before the new law, the county had more control over where observers could be located at the election-processing hub at 2001 S. State St. in Salt Lake City. Now, Swensen said, they’ll be able essentially to wander through the election center.

The ‘yellow brick road’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yellow tape marks a path where ballot observers can stand at Salt Lake County’s ballot-processing center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

The ballot-counting headquarters will be marked with yellow tape to show poll watchers where they are allowed to stand, a zone Swensen dubs the “yellow brick road.” She said space in the center is limited when dozens of workers come in to tally votes.

“Our difficulty,” she said, “is trying to secure the ballots and have poll watchers going up and down the aisles, carts going up and down the aisles, all simultaneously.”

Swensen said she tried to tell lawmakers about her concerns during the legislative session, but those efforts fell flat.

Increased security will apply only to the vote-counting hub at the election management center. Swensen said police in local jurisdictions are aware of the 42 voting locations, but individual voting centers may not be staffed with security. This year’s election will primarily be conducted by mail.

Swensen said the county didn’t need additional security during the June primary because the ballot-counting operation took up less space.

The outgoing clerk said she and her staff are preparing for more observers this year but noted she couldn’t predict how many because any registered voter can show up after going through a check-in process.

What the parties plan to do

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County’s ballot-processing center on the first day mail-in ballots began arriving, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. At left is longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen.

With the additional access, what do the major political parties plan to do?

Utah Democratic Party spokesperson Ben Anderson said his party usually has at least one person watching over the count. The party has no plans to encourage more people to sign up for observation.

Utah GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen said the state party will have poll watchers, but it isn’t actively recruiting members or the general public to observe election workers.

Jorgensen said it’s a good idea to have security watching over the processing center.

“You don’t ever want any questions to elections,” he said, “especially when it comes to the fever pitch we’ve reached to this point.”

For his part, Salt Lake County GOP Chair Chris Null isn’t buying the county’s explanation for needing more security.

He said he is unaware of the county ever having an issue with a poll watcher and that the party tells its members to be respectful of workers and not get in the way.

“We’re very concerned about the integrity of the election,” Null said. “We would never put in jeopardy any of the ballots or the security of the ballots or security of the employees.”

His party’s intent, he said, is to help its members and the public feel confident in the process.

Null said the county Republican Party had a handful of people go to the County Government Center to watch the count in 2020. They were confined to a limited area, he said, and unable to see most of the processes.

During the June primary, he said, the party had a total of about 20 people working as poll watchers in rotating shifts of two observers at a time.

Null said of the 120 people who told the party that they wanted to be poll watchers, 20 showed up to a virtual training session held Tuesday. Eight people, he added, have signed up to be poll watchers.

“We hope we get better participation,” he said. “But, at this point, there’s not a lot.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nick Wells at work in Salt Lake County’s ballot-processing center on the first day mail-in ballots began arriving, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022.

This year, County Republicans plan to have no more than four observers at a time watching the ballot count, but Null expects the party won’t even get that many participants. “We might get one or two there at a time.”

Salt Lake County Democratic Party Chair Eva Lopez said in a text message that individual campaigns will have poll watchers, but the party trusts the security of the election and the ballot count.

“Our strategy will continue to be field organizing and canvassing until the final hour,” she said, “with no amplification of our poll watching.”

Utah County bolstered its security efforts around the election generally in response to heightened public concern, but officials say traditional security levels around ballot processing should be sufficient.

Davis County has no plans to up security where it processes votes.

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