• Seal with a Pen

I Served as a Poll Watcher: Here's What I Saw

Kane County Courthouse. Credit: Cropped version of Ken Lund's photo available here.

The county clerk's office is like any other. On one table sits a few doughnuts. A radio plays soft 90s alternative in the background. There's a canister of Clorox wipes on a seat. Instead of normal nameplates, each desk has a miniature license plate with a name inscribed on it.

It's easy to access: first door on the left, clearly labeled, when you enter the county offices. The officials say they'll walk anyone through the election process who wants to learn. The public is invited to come in and watch the polls, the vote count, the subsequent audit that takes place after every election. If the treatment I've received is any indication, then the Kane County Clerk/Auditor's office may be accurately described as kind, helpful, and hospitable.

Kane County is over three times the size of Rhode Island by land, with a population of just over 7,500 people. It's the quintessential Southern Utah county, with its county seat, Kanab, nestled in between the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. It happens to be where I live for the time being, a wonderful and kind community united by a mutual love for its picturesque surroundings.

Like many other counties in the United States, Kane County conducts the elections within its boundaries with its own workers and budget. Ms. Karla Johnson, the Kane County Clerk/Auditor, leads these efforts from her sleepy small-town office. I reached out to Ms. Johnson recently so that I could learn about the election administration process. At a time when many Americans feel that our democracy is slipping away and that elections are being rigged for the opposing party, I felt that it was necessary for me to go in on the ground floor and see how things actually work behind the scenes. Ms. Johnson immediately invited me to serve as a poll watcher for Utah's primary election, which took place this past Tuesday the 28th.

Election administration has been under increasing scrutiny and criticism ever since the 2020 election, and that's no different in Utah, one of the most Republican states in the nation -- and one of the few that used mail-in ballots before the COVID pandemic. Ms. Johnson's work, and the work of many other officials like her, has often been criticized on social media. Ms. Johnson and other election officials here in Kane County have previously invited these critics to come in and observe the election process. They say the complaints stop once people see what they actually do. But, few people come in. Other than the election workers themselves, and a police officer brought in due to threats, I was the only person who watched the vote count.

I can affirm that everything I saw was good. I am here to share the process Ms. Johnson and her deputies use to make sure that every ballot legitimately cast in Kane County counts. And if you don't believe me, I invite you to reach out to Ms. Johnson -- here is their website -- and find out for yourself. Her office is transparent and there are no secrets.

The Voting Process.

Utah is the only Republican state to conduct its elections by mail in every county, but don't get the idea that this is a vulnerability. Ms. Johnson's office prints and sends out ballots a few weeks before the election -- this year Kane County was the first county in the state to finish printing ballots -- only to those voters who are duly registered with the state and who are considered "active," meaning that they have voted recently and that their registered address is correct. Only one ballot is sent to each voter.

Each ballot includes a section at the top called a "voter affidavit" -- this is a flap that has an ID number which identifies the voter, and it's where voters sign to affirm that this is their ballot. The part of the ballot where people vote is separate and sealed, so that while election officials can see whether somebody voted, they cannot see who they voted for. This is very important to ensuring the secrecy of the vote. Before the sealed part of the ballot is opened and counted, county officials will verify that the ballot is legitimate and remove the identifying information, so that the person who cast the ballot cannot be determined.

Mail-in ballots in Utah are either mailed back to the county, or deposited in special drop boxes. Even if illegitimate ballots are mailed in, they will be caught before being opened. Voters may also choose to cast their votes in-person at the county offices: poll workers will wait there all day to assist voters, though only 122 came in this week. To ensure that they can't be coerced, some poll workers -- those who check IDs -- don't even leave the building for the whole day. Utah has a single online database -- the only part of the elections process connected to the internet -- that tracks voter registration and whether somebody has already voted, so if somebody presents their ID to vote in one county and then heads to another, they'll be caught. Someone can't vote in-person and by-mail either: even if a mail-in ballot comes in later from the same person, it'll be recorded that they've already voted and the ballot will not be counted.

Only those who are active registered voters will receive a mail-in ballot, and only registered voters with ID may vote in-person with a normal ballot. However, anyone may come in and cast what's called a "provisional ballot." Forgot to register? Forgot your ID? Two poll workers will sit with you and help you fill out a provisional ballot, which is like a normal ballot, except that it also includes a registration form. Just make sure you come back within five days with your ID if you forgot it. Before your ballot is counted, the county clerk will review the paperwork to make sure you were authorized to vote. Very few of these "provisional ballots" are requested here in Kane County, but someone did come in to fill one out while I was there, and the county officials were very accommodating. Anyone who comes into the office will be allowed to fill out a ballot: but only those who have the right to vote shall have their votes counted.

The Counting Process.

Before the count takes place, the county clerk eliminates any illegitimate ballots. Each voter, and only registered voters, may cast a ballot, and they may cast only one. If somebody tries to vote twice, it's immediately caught -- Ms. Johnson caught some such cases while I was there, in fact -- and only the first ballot is counted. Ms. Johnson and her team sit down and inspect every single signature on every single ballot to make sure that each one is correct. If one seems suspicious, Ms. Johnson does everything in her power to get in contact with the voter -- phone call, text, email -- to make sure they can set the record straight, a process known as "ballot curing." The voter has 10 days after the election to cure their ballot. My ballot was actually caught last year, and Ms. Johnson's office contacted me to make sure that it was really my ballot.

If only one ballot has been cast by a given registered voter, and the signature checks out, then it's good to go. The ballots are stacked in sets of 100, called "batches;" the number of ballots is recorded at each stage to make sure none are added or disappear. Multiple people stay with them at all times, and when transported they are kept in bags locked with special seals provided by the state, each of which has a unique ID that is also recorded, so that the bags may not be opened until they reach their destination. Furthermore, each ballot cast in person has a receipt associated with it, and all of these numbers are checked for accuracy. It's a tiring process, but suffice it to say that the election officials work hard to make sure everything is legitimate.

Once all of the legitimate, legal ballots have been identified, all personally identifiable information (the voter affidavit) is removed from them. Four women sat down at a long table to do this: on one end the first lady would rip off the voter affidavit, then the next lady would open the envelope, then the next would pull the ballot itself out, and then the last would unfold the ballot and lay it face down. The order of the ballots got pretty mixed up in the process too, so nobody could identify who cast a ballot by counting the affidavits. It was a quick and secure process.

Now the ballots were run through a relatively simple machine built by ES&S under contract with the state. It was incredibly fast; no person or team of persons could have done the work in tenfold the time. The machine spits the ballots into three separate bins: one for ballots successfully counted, one for ballots filled out wrong, and one for ballots the machine cannot read. The election officials carefully inspect the ballots that land in the second and third bins -- a process called "adjudication" -- and if the ballots should have been counted, then they are. Records of all of this are kept by the clerk's office, and are available to the public for 10 days following the audit. Everything is transparent.

The order of the ballots is preserved during the machine count, too, so that the machine count can be compared to a hand count during an audit conducted after every election. Between this and frequent testing by the county, the state, and the Federal Election Commission, the election machine is assured to be safe. The machine saves time and money for the taxpayer, versus hiring ten times the number of poll workers to do the work. It has no connection to the internet whatsoever: votes were recorded on a hardened flash drive that was then taken to a server where the data was uploaded to the office computers.

After the votes have been counted -- a process that may take a few days depending on the number of ballots, and whether any mail-in ballots come in late (they must be postmarked, i.e. have been sent, before the election in order to be counted) -- then an audit is conducted of a random batch of 100 ballots, about 5% of the votes cast here. The machine count is compared to a hand count. This audit is fully open to the public, however I was told that attendance is uncommon. The election officials seemed disappointed that for all their efforts at transparency, rarely does someone put in the effort to come.

I was the only poll watcher present for the vote count.


Where was everyone?

Ms. Johnson made it clear to me, not just through her words but through her actions, that elections in Kane County are safe and secure. It's easy for anyone in the county entitled to vote, to vote -- and it's hard to cheat. We have some elderly residents here; sometimes they vote by-mail and then forget that they've voted, and then vote again in-person. Ms. Johnson catches those cases, and any others that might arise. Apparently some people sign ballots for their spouses. Ms. Johnson is diligent in contacting all of these people to straighten things out.

Ms. Johnson's hospitality, long before she learned I wrote a blog, and her willingness to set aside hours of her time to explain the whole process to me, and answer my questions as a constituent, was impressive. And it's not just Ms. Johnson -- she has several hard-working deputies who set aside time and energy to help serve the people of Kane County. One of them is Ms. Heather Narramore, the Kane County Election Specialist, who handles much of the day-to-day when it comes to the vote. During my several visits, Ms. Narramore and all those who work alongside her were pleasant, accommodating, and willing to answer whatever questions popped into my head as I watched their work. Their office is a shining example of transparency in government.

But people accuse them of malfeasance anyway.

By my analysis, the only manner in which mass election fraud could be conducted in this state would be if the entire election administration framework, from the town to the state, was being run by conspiracy. The problem with that (literal) conspiracy theory is that Ms. Johnson allowed me to come in and watch them count the votes truthfully and legitimately. Evil seeks darkness, not light. The transparency of the whole process was astounding. Anyone with doubts about the election is welcome to go in and see for themselves; Ms. Johnson has previously invited election doubters herself.

I've had something around 7 hours to freely ask Ms. Johnson questions, in-person, thus far. I've asked her about every potential flaw I've thought or heard of, I've asked her about election law, I've asked her about her outreach to the youth of the county, to make sure they vote when they come of age. I asked her about election fraud claims.

Ms. Johnson's eyes actually watered during her response. She described the great lengths she goes to, to make sure that the elections in our county are secure. I saw that watching her and the other officials working over the past two days. She described how leading up to the election she worries about little details here and there, wanting to make sure everything's just right. And she described how it felt to have people, who'd never come into her office or reached out to her with concerns, slander her work on social media.

If you have legitimate concerns about election fraud, I implore you to reach out to your county clerk. Your feelings and concerns aren't inherently wrong, but please try to have empathy for your local officials who are just trying to do their jobs. Not everywhere's the same as in Utah, but Ms. Johnson told me that every elections official she's met thus far has been committed to running their elections as well as they can.

Poll watching is the most simple way of holding elected officials accountable. I didn't see anything nefarious, but if you have concerns, why not go watch?

-- Seal with a Pen

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