POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Utah County Clerk asked staff for access to legally protected vote records, complaint says

Aug 2, 2023, 5:21 PM | Updated: Aug 3, 2023, 6:51 am

A Utah County ballot drop box is pictured. Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson, R-Utah, is facing a co...

A ballot drop box and county treasurer box in Provo are pictured on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah — Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson, R-Utah, is facing a complaint over allegations that he wanted access to sensitive election materials.

Davidson has been in office since January 2023. Records obtained by KSL NewsRadio allege that in May, he asked at least two different members of his staff for “access to an Excel file for votes cast.”

This file is also known as a cast vote record, which is a digital copy of a ballot that was cast. CVRs are legally protected documents because they could be used to figure out how someone voted.

An employee filed an HR complaint against Davidson over this alleged request. The complaint alleges that he asked two different staffers for access to the CVRs.

According to the complaint, the employee reported feeling uncomfortable with the request and said that if they continued, the employee felt “obligated to notify state authorities because he thought the requests may be rising to the level of illegal.”

“Aaron also asked for keys to certain election areas where past elections information was stored,” the complaint also alleged. 

Davidson’s response

Davidson confirmed to KSL NewsRadio he made both requests and has been given keys to the ballot center.

“It was just an ask, I was given the answer, and that was as far as it went,” Davidson explained about his request. “I was new in office, and just asked if they were available,” Davidson said. 

Davidson said that he wanted the CVRs to run a report on the 2022 midterm election for delegates who had questions about it.

“There was a lot of discussions [over the election results] after [2022] from the delegates,” Davidson said. “And they never got a reasonable answer from anybody.” 

After asking for the records the first time, Davidson recalled being told, “No, we’re trying to protect you,” by the employee.

Then he said he asked a second staffer the same question. He said he wanted a second opinion on whether Utah law allowed him to view these records.

“I was trying to figure out what I was allowed access to, being the new county clerk,” Davidson said about his actions.

“There’s been some debate…there’s been a lot of debate…as to whether cast vote records and the actual physical records are two different things. And so I just wanted to make sure I had a complete and thorough understanding that the state of Utah views the cast vote records the same as the…ballots themselves.”

Had Davidson’s request been granted, his staff would have been breaking Utah law.

The state elections office did not respond to a request for comment.

What is a cast vote record?

In election administration, cast vote records are digital copies of all the votes on a single ballot. In other words, the ballot you cast creates a CVR. Then for every Utah voter, the CVRs are tabulated to aggregate election results.  

These records are protected by state law because of a judge’s ruling last year.

Utah law states that ballots and “all other official election returns” are to be stored for “at least 22 months” after an election before being destroyed.

When two sisters, Jen Orten and Sophie Anderson, known online as the Two Red Pills, sued to get access to the 2022 cast vote records last year, a judge dismissed the suit concluding that cast vote records are part of “election returns” that cannot be shared.

Later, 4th District Judge Derek Pullan dismissed the lawsuit

Access to the vote center

The complaint also stated that Davidson asked for “keys to certain election areas where past election information was stored.”
 
Davidson confirmed to KSL NewsRadio that he’s been given keys and a code to Utah County’s ballot center.
 
It’s common practice in large county clerk offices that no single person has access to this area, where ballots are tabulated and some election information is stored. In Salt Lake and Weber Counties, for example, clerks do not even have keys. 
 
Former County Clerk Josh Daniels was Utah County’s clerk before Davidson.
 
“We preferred that always two people would enter the ballot center together, and the clerk would not have a physical key or the security code,” Daniels said. 
 
Those were given to senior, merited staff.
 
Daniels said it could be perceived as a conflict of interest if the clerk in charge of counting the ballots can also get sole access to the room where votes are tabulated. 
 
“Consolidating operational power in just one individual, especially an elected individual, isn’t going to increase faith and confidence in the elections administration,” Daniels said. “You want to be above reproach.” 
 
Davidson said he’s never been in the ballot center by himself, “I’ve never been in the ballot processing center alone,” he said.
 
“I’ve never used the code, there’s always somebody there before I go in,” Davidson said.
 
Daniels added that the flash drives containing cast vote records are typically stored in their ballot center. “Previous cast vote records are typically archived or stored locally until their destruction schedule,” Daniels said.
 
However, Davidson wasn’t sure where the CVRs are currently stored.
 
“I have not been given access to the cast vote records and I do not know where they’re retained,” he said.
 
The complaint did list a resolution. It said, “The elections director or County Clerk can access these records areas if there is a legitimate reason and multiple user passwords are required.”
 
It also recommended that there is a “best practice process for security that should be followed.” 
 
It did not address any resolution pertaining to Davidson asking for the cast vote records. 

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Utah County Clerk asked staff for access to legally protected vote records, complaint says