Though Gov. Gary Herbert criticized Utah County as the “epicenter of dysfunction” in 2018, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner says the county no longer deserves that title and reputation.
Gardner, who came into office in January 2019, told the Utah County Commission during a work session Wednesday that the Utah County Elections Division made significant improvements to the election process in the last year and a half, including improvements in efficiency and security.
“Obviously, as everybody knows, in 2018 we were called the epicenter of dysfunction,” Gardner said during a presentation before the commission. “And I really came into office wanting to upgrade and update our office, not to just minimum standards, but I really wanted to be the best office in the state and the nation for people to look to.”
One of the improvements Gardner proposed when she took office was reducing wait times at polling stations to below a maximum peak of 45 minutes, which the county clerk/auditor said the elections division achieved in both the March 3 Super Tuesday presidential primary and the June 30 statewide primary election.
“The longest wait that we’ve had in an election in 2020 has been 20 minutes with average wait times under five minutes,” Gardner said. “With all things considered, moving into the 2020 presidential general election, I feel confident that we will be able to meet that less-than-45 minutes goal.”
Additionally, county election officials released the presidential primary polling results “immediately as polls closed” with all votes in possession of the election office, according to Gardner.
“In 2018, Utah County only had half of their ballots counted when the polls closed on election night,” she said. “In this presidential (primary) election, we had almost 85% of our ballots counted and released right at polls closing.”
During Utah’s June primary, which saw record turnout statewide, Gardner said Utah County released preliminary results two hours after polls closed, which is the earliest they could be released under a law passed by the Utah State Legislature in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had less outstanding ballots than counties one-tenth our size,” said Gardner. “So we’ve gotten really good at processing our ballots.”
By reducing the rate of returned ballots through updating and “cleaning up” voter registration lists every election, Gardner estimated that Utah County has saved $25,000 this year in postage fees and other costs.
The county also has cut costs by installing ballot drop boxes across the county, which 29,000 voters utilized during the June primary on election day alone.
“We’ve put these ballot boxes all over the county, and people are using them,” said Gardner.
Another one of Gardner’s goals upon taking office was to improve election security and prevent fraud, which she said her office accomplished, in part, by installing a dual security system in the ballot processing center doors, requiring both a key card and physical key to gain access.
“That way if somebody loses one or the other, we haven’t compromised our election,” she said.
Despite a number of “unique challenges” posed by holding the June primary during a public health crisis, including setting up four outdoor drive-up voting stations across the county and securing personal protective equipment for poll workers, Gardner said the election went smoothly.
“Even with all of the challenges we’ve had in 2020, we’ve been able to accomplish several of these factors,” Gardner said.
Gardner ended her presentation with an assertion: “Utah County is no longer the epicenter of dysfunction.”
Commissioner Tanner Ainge praised Gardner and election officials for “turn(ing) this department around from being the epicenter of dysfunction in such a short period” and said having an efficient election process is “absolutely critical.”
“It really is being recognized nationally,” Ainge said about the clerk/auditor’s office. “And I think it makes all of our citizens feel good knowing that their vote counts, and it’s safe and secure.”