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Follow the Ballot: Multiple security features accompany Utah mail-in ballots

Feb 24, 2022, 1:26 PM | Updated: 5:34 pm

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Photo of a Utah mail-in ballot, which shows the first step in election security -- the envelope. which features a unique code that links the envelope to the ballot. (Lindsay Aerts/KSL NewsRadio)

(Lindsay Aerts/KSL NewsRadio)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about elections security in Utah. We’ll publish part two on Feb. 25

SALT LAKE CITY —  Elections leaders say Utah mail-in ballots, and the elections in general, are safe despite frequent calls for more security.

Some of these calls even resulted in proposed bills on Utah’s Capitol Hill during the 2022 general session of the legislature.

Here’s a look at what happens to your Utah mail-in ballots on their path to being counted.

What Utah mail-in ballots go through, from start to finish

When your ballot leaves your kitchen table, the first and largest security check is your mail-in ballot envelope. It has a unique code on it that’s not just unique to that voter and to this election — but to this exact envelope and ballot.

Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch says those numbers are never made public and they’re virtually impossible to recreate or get.

“Let’s say I just changed the last digit on here, hoping that maybe my neighbor’s not going to vote,” said Hatch. “The problem is you’ve got to match the signature. They [the envelopes] would all have different numbers and only one of those is going to get through.”

So you’ve dropped off your Utah mail-in ballot, now what?

When you take your ballot to a mailbox or dropbox, there’s security there, too.

“One of our key rules is ‘always two people’,” said Hatch. “We never have the ballots handled by any one person.”

Poll workers pick up ballots at random times, in red and blue duffel bags that can fit about 2,000 ballots. They seal those bags with an orange zip tie that has a unique number on it.

That number matches the number on a form that can only be accessed from inside that sealed bag.

An orange zip tag prevents anyone from tampering with a bag full of ballots before it gets to its final, secure destination. (Lindsay Aerts/KSL Newsradio)

“That ensures that the bag hasn’t been tampered with and the ballots haven’t been added to or taken from,” Hatch said.

There are also logs at every step, but before you even get a ballot, there’s more security when you register to vote. County clerks know exactly who they’re sending ballots to.

“First of all, they check for duplicate registration, so they check to see if you are already registered in the state,” said Ryan Cowley, Utah’s director of elections. “And in Utah, we have a statewide voter registration database which allows us to make sure that people don’t get registered to vote more than once.”

Cowley says the state isn’t just getting blanketed with mail-in ballots, despite being a “universal vote-by-mail” state.

“We hear the term ‘universal vote-by-mail’ — I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer in Utah,” said Cowley. “It is [sent] to specific people that are active voters. So, if we get something returned back undeliverable, if they are on that NCOA list, if they don’t vote in a couple of elections, they are made inactive.”

What’s the NCOA list?

That NOCA list, or National Change of Address list, is checked quarterly. Plus, changing your address with the DMV notifies your local voting clerk. If you move out of state, Utah also checks the multi-state system monthly, and they’re notified of dead voters through the Department of Vital Statistics each week.

“These are things that keep us up at night,” said Cowley. “When we talk about people being able to vote twice to register places where they don’t live.”

Cowley says they’re just as concerned about security as anybody else.

“So we’re always looking for ways that we can tighten things up, make things better, make it more secure, and of course transparent at the same time,” he said.

This is the first in a two-part series about elections security in Utah. We’ll publish part two on Feb. 25

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

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Follow the Ballot: Multiple security features accompany Utah mail-in ballots