|IT director for the county, Jeff Guymon shows the Beagley family of Emery the new voting machines they might not be allowed to use.|
The Emery County Commissioners held public hearings in Emery and Clawson to gather citizen input on the proposal to have the residents of those towns vote by absentee ballot. Commissioner Ira Hatch began the hearings with some background information.
He said that as a result of the voting problems in Florida, federal legislation came down called the Help America Vote Act. The legislation was enacted and each state must be HAVA compliant. Several voting systems were analyzed and different scenarios were contemplated that would make Utah compliant to HAVA.
Money was allocated from the federal government for Utah to purchase the voting equipment that would bring the state into compliance. Utah received $25 million. The state put together a selection committee to investigate and suggest a compliant system for purchase, and after the investigation the decision was unanimous for Diebolds voting machine. Diebold was the only company to make application and was approved.
We signed a contract with the state that we would take the money and go with Diebold. We are under contract with the state to use Diebold, said Commissioner Hatch.
Following his explanation of how the state and Emery County came into HAVA compliancy and the Diebold voting machines, Commissioner Hatch informed the residents of Emery and Clawson that the commission is considering to have the precincts in the county with less than 500 registered voters, vote by absentee ballot. He explained that according to Utah State Code, 20A-3-302, the commission has the right to conduct voting in this manner.
Commissioner Hatch read the state code and stated that the commission is considering conducting the vote for Emery and Clawson by absentee. Emery has 259 registered voters and Clawson has 138. We could have made this unilateral decision, but we felt that was not the way to operate and that is the reason we are here tonight. We want your input and we want to hear the pros and cons. We will honor your wishes, said Commissioner Hatch.
One Emery resident spoke up and stated that Emery has the highest voter turnout in the county and asked if that would have any bearing on the decision. Commissioner Hatch answered saying that percentages are not mentioned in the state code and was not considered in their proposal. The resident asked if the cost of holding an election had any bearing on the proposal for the absentee ballot election in Emery.
Commissioner Hatch reviewed a study of the cost analysis of conducting the voting by absentee compared with the electronic machines. If the election was to be conducted by absentee ballot, the estimated cost for Emery would be $391.09, and for Clawson the cost is estimated at $205.62, for the printing of the ballots, envelopes, and postage. To hold the election with the electronic machines, the estimated cost is $507.50 for each town. The difference in the cost is negligible, stated Commissioner Hatch. Money was not an issue in our proposal. We have not come here with any preconceived ideas. We want to hear from you. We could have done this without input, but we wanted to see how you folks feel about it.
Emery Mayor Michael Williams was the first to comment. In my years here in Emery and during my time as mayor, I have never seen people as mad as they are now. Many calls have come into city hall and not one has been in favor of the absentee ballot proposal.
One resident stated that she feels disenfranchised. Another asked whether the number of voting machines owned by the county is not enough to have them in Emery. The answer was no, the county has enough machines. Another resident stated that if the election is held by absentee ballot, the only profit would be to the post office. If the election was held in the regular manner, at least the election judges would be making a little money.
Another issue was the number of trained technicians to service the machines on election day. Commissioner Hatch assured the residents the county has an adequate number of trained personnel, along with the Diebold technician, to accommodate the needs on election day.
Another resident asked if the cost of having a Diebold technician at the polling place was the responsibility of the county. The answer was no, the Diebold company is absorbing that cost. Another comment from a resident was that little by little, Emery citizens feel that they are being alienated from the county. Commissioner Hatch said they have always tried to be fair in the way of services for every town.
Another resident said that it is a privilege to vote and asked if this absentee voting happens, what will the town lose next? Yet another resident stated that he appreciates being given an option, but it is his opinion that he wants to go to the polls to vote. Another resident asked about local elections, whose responsibility are municipal elections? The answer was municipal elections are solely the responsibility of the city.
One concern that arose several times was the issue of the absentee ballot and the verification process. It was explained that the county clerk is responsible for maintaining a file with voter signatures. These signatures will be used to verify the validity of the mailed in ballots. Several Emery and Clawson residents were concerned about the process of validation and their rights to a secret ballot. Emery County Clerk/Auditor Brenda Dugmore assured the citizens that secrecy sleeves are used for the ballots, and the signatures are on the envelopes. She also stated that the ballots are stored in the vault, and counted on election day with the optical scan machine, and those ballots that are postmarked no later than the day before election day will be counted as they come in.
Bruce Funk stated that the election is now out of his hands. This system is here to stay, and Emery and Clawson need to keep their polling places. It is very confusing to change methods, at least keep your polling place. Also, keep in mind that absentee ballots do not accommodate last minute changes in a ballot.
Commissioner Gary Kofford added that the Utah State legislature has required that the Diebold machines be set up two weeks before an election so the residents can become familiar with their operation. They will not be able to vote early, but they can familiarize themselves with the operation of the machines, and vote if they wish to. If a citizen chooses that option, they must surrender their mailed ballot.
One Clawson resident stated he feels the voting machines are a more personal and rewarding way in which to cast your vote. "I want a polling place in my city," he stated.
Another Clawson resident stated that she felt the absentee ballots would be good for seniors who may have a difficult time getting to the polls. She also stated that in her opinion, the voter turnout numbers would be better with the absentee ballots.
In a final comment from the residents of Emery, one resident stated, As an American, going through the doors of the polling place on election day gives me a sense of belonging and a sense of pride. Do not take that away.
Emery County IT specialist, Jeff Guymon, was present at both public hearings. He set up one of the new voting machines and demonstrated how the system operates. Following his demonstration, residents of each town were invited to try out the machine.
Any voter in the county can request an absentee ballot, which must be mailed in and postmarked at least one day before the election.
Commissioner Hatch informed the residents of Emery and Clawson the decision concerning their election will be made at the next commission meeting on May 16 at 9 a.m.