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Concerns rise as experienced elections administrators exit Utah County Clerk’s Office

By Carlene Coombs - | Sep 15, 2023

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The Republican candidate for Utah County Clerk, Aaron Davidson, left, and outgoing Utah County Clerk, Josh Daniels, look on during a tour of Utah County's elections equipment and review processes for administering secure elections Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Provo. In Utah and other Republican-led states, unsubstantiated election fraud claims have upended support for vote by-mail, a practice that not long ago was overwhelmingly popular among Republicans.

In recent months, multiple experienced election officials in Utah County have left the county clerk’s office, with replacement hires having little experience specifically in election administration. That’s given some current and former county officials pause amid the ongoing and upcoming election seasons.

Earlier this year, two employees in the office left, one being Rozan Mitchell who worked as the elections director and is now employed with the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office. A week before the primary election, the elections coordinator also left, County Clerk Aaron Davidson told the Daily Herald in a previous interview.

According to KSL NewsRadio, those three employees had a combined 39 years of experience in conducting elections.

Davidson has not hired a new elections director, stating he will now take on the position’s responsibilities in addition to his role as county clerk. Davidson was elected county clerk last year.

HR complaint and allegations of a ‘rigged’ election

In a human resources complaint, two county employees reported Kaylee Cox, the assistant elections director, for professional misconduct. At the time of the report, which the Daily Herald received through a public records request, Cox was an appointed confidential assistant to Davidson.

The report details an interaction between the two employees and Cox in May in which Cox allegedly shouted at and threatened the staff members.

According to the HR report, the complaint was found to be “substantiated” and indicated Davidson had addressed the issue.

Davidson said HR never spoke with Cox about the issue while he spoke with all parties involved, resolving the issue “easily.”

“Everyone found out where the misunderstanding was, and they just said ‘OK, water under the bridge,’ and we moved on,” he said. “Everybody moved on.”

Speaking to the Daily Herald late Friday, Cox confirmed she never spoke to HR about the complaints. She said the investigation into the matter was “completely inadequate for it to be somehow substantiated.”

The interaction referenced in the report occurred after Cox had met with the staffers and inquired if they believed there was a cover-up during the 2022 midterm election in Utah, according to KSL NewsRadio, which also reported on the complaint.

KSL NewsRadio reported Cox made claims to county employees that last year’s election was “rigged” and named former county employees and county clerks involved in the “conspiracy.”

Davidson said from his understanding, the claim that Cox told employees the midterm election was manipulated is “untrue” and that she only “asked some questions” without making particular allegations.

“There weren’t specific allegations that she was trying to seek for any specific person. It was … a lunchtime conversation that was taken out of context by the supervisor that ended up leaving,” he said.

Josh Daniels, who was the Utah County Clerk during the 2022 election, told the Daily Herald that any allegations of election mishandling are “simply false, fallacious misinformation nonsense.”

He added it was “alarming” that these claims may have been spread within the office as it undermines the trust and confidence in elections and can hurt employee morale.

Amelia Powers Garder, current county commissioner and a former Utah County clerk/auditor, said she has full confidence that the 2022 election was fair and accurate.

“Many of the employees in the Clerk’s office were there during the 2022 elections, and I can understand how demoralizing it must be to have your current supervisor asking these kinds of questions about past elections,” Powers Gardener said in an email.

Turnover and new hires

Daniels, who was the chief deputy clerk/auditor before becoming the county clerk, said he found the loss of experienced election administrators “highly concerning.”

“I do think it’s important for a large county like Utah County to make sure they’ve got experienced professionals that sort of understand best practices and understand how to manage an election,” he said. “It’s certainly not a time to be training newcomers.”

Daniels acknowledged that high turnover in local election administration occurs but said it is a statewide and national issue that isn’t unique to Utah County.

“I have no problem with the experience of the people in my office,” Davidson said. “I think everyone that is in the position that they’re in has sufficient experience to conduct a successful election.”

Powers Gardner said that while she was clerk/auditor, her team worked hard to build an experienced elections team.

“To see several top-tier staff depart and to see that skill leave the office has been concerning,” she said.

Daniels said the approaching 2024 election will likely be the largest election in Utah County history, stressing the need for a well-trained and experienced election staff.

According to a press release on Aug. 29, the clerk’s office has made three new hires, two being for chief deputy clerk and assistant elections director.

Brian Voeks, who was a senior policy advisor for the Utah County Commission and most recently the county’s chief deputy assessor, recently assumed the role of chief deputy clerk. Cox was the second hire announced, as she became assistant elections director.

According to the press release, Cox has previous legal experience working in the 4th District Court and paralegal experience for various law firms. Voeks has an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Utah.

Last year, Voeks filed a claim with the Provo Police Department alleging that the online marriage portal for the county was being used for child sex trafficking in other countries and the county wasn’t taking action on the issue. The county clerk’s office handles marriage licensing.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Utah County created a system allowing couples to file for a marriage license online and perform marriage ceremonies remotely, and persons from around the world are allowed to utilize the portal. Provo police found no evidence to support Voeks’ claim, according to the report the Daily Herald obtained through a public records request.

The chief deputy clerk position is appointed, meaning Davidson is given sole discretion for who he selects. The assistant elections director is a merit-based hire.

In July, Davidson requested the county commission allow him two appointed staff members. He was currently only allowed one appointed employee, his confidential assistant, who was Cox at that time. The commission said Davidson would only be allowed one appointed employee.

“The commissioners gave me three choices and one of them was to take Kaylee, who was the confidential assistant, and make her a merit employee in another position, and then hire a chief deputy as an appointed position,” Davidson said. “And that’s the choice that I took.”

Davidson said his office has also found a new hire for the open elections coordinator position who should begin next week.

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