Few things are as important in civic life as voting.
Some of you know that my husband immigrated to the United States as a young boy. He did not speak English and knew very little about American culture.
His mom sat him down in front of Sesame Street and told him to learn. After our marriage, I proudly watched him go through the process of earning United States citizenship — something he took very seriously.
When he was finally eligible to vote, he spent countless hours studying the candidates and items on the ballot, wanting desperately to cast his vote for the right people and causes. I hope each of us treasures the right and opportunity to vote.
Given the importance of voting, many of you, like me, have been curious about just how secure your ballot is. Last week, I had the chance to sit down with the woman in charge of elections in Utah County, Amelia Powers Gardner, to discuss just that.
Whether it’s the presidential election or a local primary, if you live in Utah County, it’s her office that handles the election. Let me tell you a little about her and the upcoming election.
You may remember that it was not that long ago that Governor Gary Herbert, referring to elections, called Utah County the “epicenter of dysfunction.” But on January 1, 2019, the dynamo that is Amelia Powers Gardner was sworn in as Utah County Clerk. Since then, her office has gone from the brunt of criticism to a leader on the national scene (when I met with her, she had just arrived from an interview with the Washington Post).
Amelia is fun to visit with. Her energy is contagious. She brings a farmer’s grit and a businesswoman’s savvy to this job that meant a significant pay cut for her (she used to own and run a farm). As she describes it, she was out trying to recruit someone to run as county clerk. When no one else seemed willing, it sank in that maybe it was time for her to step up.
Within her first week or so on the job, she sat down individually with each member of her staff.
“Here’s my vision. We need to get this office from here to here,” she said to each of them, gesturing to show a gap. “I want you here as a part of our team and will do everything in my power to support you in your efforts to help us reach this higher level. Are you in?”
Not everyone was; some chose to move on. But those who stayed became energized by the mission and challenge.
Of all Amelia’s stories, one I love most is from a tour I took with her last year. She showed me a large piece of ballot-processing equipment. This was a coveted item that she knew would be a game-changer for her office. The only problem was that she couldn’t afford it — not even close.
But through networking and good fortune, she learned of an obscure proprietor in the Midwest who refurbished them, selling them on the second-hand market at less than a tenth of the regular cost.
Amelia snapped up the “hand-me-down,” bringing state-of-the-art technology to Provo in the classic Provo way: on the cheap.
And before I leave the topic of Amelia and her innovative spirit, let me mention her groundbreaking work on marriage licenses and ceremonies. Within her first year, she launched the world’s first entirely online marriage-licensing portal.
Regardless of where Utahns live or plan to marry, they can get their marriage license from any county in Utah. After launching the online portal, her office began processing more out-of-county licenses than Utah County ones, bringing in outside revenue and saving on taxpayer-funded expenditures.
When temples and other venues closed for the pandemic, she even allowed remote office appearances so people could still have a ceremony, with a duly registered wedding officiant officiating live through video conference technology.
As for this year’s election, you may know that many are concerned over the security of vote by mail. Some parts of the nation are implementing vote by mail for the first time this year, but not Utah County.
This is Utah County’s third year with universal vote by mail. Amelia says the post office is ready; the elections office is ready. She took the time to describe some of the many safeguards she has put in place to ensure your ballot is counted.
For example, each time a drop box is closed and locked, a staff member affixes a plastic seal, like the “tamper-resistant” seal you sometimes see on products, over the locked opening. Each seal has its own serial number.
When a new staff member comes to open the box, she or he photographs the seal, removes and opens the contents, weighs the ballots on the spot, photographs the weight, then locks the box again and affixes a new seal.
Photographs of the prior seal, the ballot weight, and new seal are sent immediately to the home office and the person heads straight to the elections office. If the person takes longer than expected to arrive or the weight doesn’t match the weight in the field, a supervisor investigates.
Some concerns about vote by mail have centered on “ballot harvesting,” which is when political groups collect large numbers of ballots from voters. In Utah, the practice is illegal and has never been a problem.
Ballots sent in via mail must be postmarked before election day, which is Nov. 3. On election day, you can also show up at one of eight “ballot pickup locations,” each of which is listed on the Utah County Elections Office website.
At these locations, election workers will print your ballot (the same ballot you received in the mail) and you can fill it out and place it in the drop box.
“Every ballot in Utah County will be a paper ballot. This actually makes it more secure and auditable,” Amelia says.
For information about the items and candidates on the ballot, visit vote.utah.gov. You will be asked to enter your address and then will be shown the various items on your ballot, including arguments for and against ballot propositions.
For anyone who is hyper-concerned about voter security, Amelia suggests taking your ballot to one of the county’s ballot drop boxes rather than the post office. You can fill out your ballot at home, then take it to any of the 19 secure drop boxes listed at utahcounty.vote.
You won’t need to stand in line or talk to an elections official. You can merely drive or walk up to the drop box and drop your ballot in. That method saves on postage and prevents the possibility of your ballot being mishandled by the post office. The drop off locations are taking ballots now and will continue to do so until 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Regardless of whether you mail in your ballot or drop it off, Amelia says that this election will be Utah County’s most secure election to date. But nothing her office does can help our ballots be counted if we don’t take the time to fill them out and turn them in.
So be like my husband: read up on the issues, and then vote!