Headline: “Clerks kill Election Day voter registration”

provisional ballot binThe last hours of many legislative sessions are filled with unexpected and sometimes hard to explain events.  Yesterday (March 14), the last day of the Utah 2013 legislative session was definitely one of those cases.  For years, the media, scholars and politicians have bemoaned the fact that the state has suffered from low voter turnout.  The Salt Lake Tribune, reporting on the close of the session summarized the low turnout dilemma:  

The Governor’s Commission on Strengthening Democracy — formed by former Gov. Jon Huntsman to find ways to improve voter turnout — made Election Day registration a top priority, but the idea has foundered for five years since it was recommended.

Utah voter turnout is among the nation’s lowest. In 2010, 36.2 percent of Utah’s voting-eligible population cast ballots — ranking No. 49 among the 50 states. In 2012 when favorite-son Mitt Romney was running for president, that rose to 55.4 percent — but still ranked only No. 38, and was still below the national average of 58.2 percent.

Utah has an interesting form of same day registration as part of the statute pertaining to provisional ballots.  If a voter fails to re-register or update their registration by the legal registration deadlines, the voter can cast a provisional ballot at the polling place assigned to their new address and that ballot will be counted provided the voter was previously registered, at anytime, anywhere in the state.  The statewide registration system makes this easy to verify and simple to verify that the voter has not previously voted.  The vast majority of provisional ballots cast (75%+) fall into this category.  The net result is same day registration for a sub-set of the state’s residents.

The ballots of voters who showed up on election day, cast a provisional ballot but were not previously registered in the state yet are otherwise qualified are not counted.  These voters are registered for future elections but the registration is not effective for that election.  The majority of provisional ballots not counted in the state fall into this category.

The upshot of the statute is that one group who ignores or fails to meet arbitrary registration deadlines gets their vote counted and another group who fails to meet the same deadlines does not.  To close this gap, Rep Rebecca Houck has sponsored a bill for the last five years which would close the loophole and would permit the provisional ballots for all eligible voters who show up on election day at the correct polling place to count.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, has noted that Utah law now allows people to register on Election Day and cast provisional ballots. While that is used to register them for future elections, the provisional ballots are discarded if officials find those people were not previously registered in Utah.

“What this bill does is allow the vote to be counted,” Jenkins [the Republican Senate Sponsor] said. “This allows you to register and vote on same day if you prove your residency and identity.”

Previous attempts to pass the bill met partisan resistance and did not make it to a vote.  This year, however, the bill had support from both major political parties and the House passed the bill after hearing testimony in favor by the State Republican Party, State Democratic Party, League of Women Voters and the head of the Utah Tea Party.  The only testimony in opposition came from County Clerks—who complained it would be too much work.  As the bill proceeded to the Senate and passed out of committee, the Clerk’s Association mounted the bill’s only opposition.

A bill to allow Election Day voter registration died Thursday — ironically killed by election officials who worried that it could work too well, and cause them too much work, in a state that has among the worst voter turnout in the nation.

HB91 died on a 10-18 vote in the Senate, after earlier passing the House 58-14.

Most of the opposition cited was from county clerks who said it could create more work than they could now handle between when votes are cast and when counts must be finalized.

This case is representative of election administrators across the country and is not merely a Utah aberration.  Clerks and administrators are not effective policy makers nor is it their function.  The role of administrators should be to inform policymakers about proposed legislation and to even take positions on bills.  There is a fair question of where genuine support and opposition of a proposal ends and where active lobbying and activism for a bill begin.  That line can be fuzzy and may not be meaningful much of the time. 

However, when opposition by election officials to a measure, which is uniformly agreed by all parties to be in the interest of voters and the electoral process (as in this case), is based solely on avoiding additional work, the personal competence, the profession’s credibility and the integrity of the process is rightfully scrutinized, and even called into question, by the public.  The passage of good public policy should not be thwarted by complaints by election administrators that it is “too hard” or by their exaggerated estimates of time and cost.

 Stay Tuned


8 thoughts on “Headline: “Clerks kill Election Day voter registration”

  1. Unfortunately, legislatures occasionally pass, and even more often ALMOST pass, until they’re warned and informed, legislation that is literally impossible to comply with when taken in combination with other legislation. Occasionally the people WHO ARE ACTUALLY AFFECTED need to throw up ther hands and yell, “ENOUGH ALREADY!” You can’t throw mandated canvas dates on top of provisional ballot handling, on top of Election Day registration, on top of reserving recount and contest opportunities, on top of whatever. Yet that is exactly what nearly happened here.

    People need to realize that in many of our states, all these various electoral tasks are being done by a tiny tiny handful of people – the same people for all of the various tasks. The Utah legislature nearly threw up its own ignorance on its own clothing. Thank GOD the clerks spoke up!


  2. Occaisionally legislatures do pile requirements on pretty high. My experience is that happens when administrators don’t honestly and effectively engage to shape and influence the legislation. Many administrators’ associations legislative outreach is nothing more than saying “NO”, “We can’t”, “Its too expensive”, “Thats a dumb idea”. That kind of lobbying effort often results reforms being passed without the benefit of constructive input from the experts.

    In this particular case, the additional work and cost claimed by the Clerks was disingenuous. Given the specific nature of the bill, all the effort needed to qualify a provisional ballot for counting is already being done until current laws and procedures. The feared spike in provisionals was intentionally exaggerated and inflated. This was a classic case of sacrificing the interests of the voters for personal convenience.


  3. having sorted and counted provisional ballots myself in the last election, i agree that the opposition is disingenuous. Scott, i know this is no new news to you, but for everyone else: every provisional ballot, whether signed, filled in correctly or at all, or being duplicitous, must be entered into the system manually. then, the person manually inputting the ballot also manually determines whether the vote should count or not based on the proper polling location, proper identification, ect. these tasks are done simultaneously. the “work” needed to count these additional ballots is simply to select the “counted” tab instead of the “not counted” tab. it seems to me that the clerks office has a duty to ensure that all eligible voters have their votes counted, so long as the work required is not unreasonably burdensome. because this is a constitutional right, that burden SHOULD be a high burden for the clerks to overcome, and objections based on mere additional labor (especially when patently false) should not be enough to override an eligible voter’s right to have their cast ballot counted.


    1. Cogratulations if you live in a binary count/no count state. Not all states are. Part of processing a provisional ballot in PA, in the case of a wrong precinct, is comparing the offices and districts or the correct precinct with the one where the provisional was cast, and manually writing on the inner envelope which offices to count and then passing it on to the singular person who adds them into the tally.


  4. I also have had the experience of administering provisional ballots under Pennsylvania law, and there’s no more odious and burdensome task in all of election administration. In 2004, that single task ran past Thanksgiving Day.


  5. The law, as it stands, is reasonable.

    Anyone desirous of voting can register to vote. There is not an “arbitrary” decision between those who previously registered in the state and those registered out-of-state (or never registered). Those registered in-state can still legally vote in the location at which they were previously registered, or go to their new polling location and vote there.
    Likewise, those who are from out of state can vote for president in their previously registered location.
    If you are not registered prior to the cut-off date, too bad. It is YOUR civic duty to register to vote.


  6. Swing states, of which mine is one typically, get swamped every Presidential year with political operatives roaming ths streets telling everyone of their demographic target to “just go to any polling place, it doesn’t matter which one, and cast a provisional ballot”. It happened in PA in 2004, 2008, and 2012. It is LITERALLY a crime, but if the voter is in the state’s registration system, the ballot has to count for at least all statewide races. Those political operatives are suborning perjury because the affidavit CLEARLY and UNAMBIGUOUSLY states that the voter is swearing under oath that they beileve they are registered at THAT PRECINCT!


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