[Photo by Ken Lund]

Special elections are always challenging, because of the odd timing and need for resources – but in Utah, the upcoming primary race for the vacant 3rd Congressional District is creating even more problems for local election offices. Wasatch County (Heber City), Utah has now joined Utah County (Provo) in sending Republican ballots to unaffiliated voters in the upcoming primary, as the Deseret News reports:

A second county has mistakenly sent vote-by-mail Republican primary ballots to unaffiliated voters in the race to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd Congressional District.

In Wasatch County, some 1,400 unaffiliated voters living in unincorporated areas have been sent ballots listing the three GOP candidates competing in the special primary election, the county’s clerk and auditor, Brent Titcomb, said Wednesday.

“I like the vote by mail, but this has made it a little more confusing,” Titcomb said. He said sending out notices to the voters who received the wrong ballots will cost about $700.

“I hope it’s covered. We’ve done everything we know,” he said.

Wasatch’s issue follows a much larger one in Utah County last week:

A week ago, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson said all of Utah County’s 68,028 unaffiliated voters within the 3rd District were mailed ballots that included the primary candidates.

“It’s unfortunate, because it is the voters who get confused as to what is going on,” said Mark Thomas, state elections director. He said he’ll work with counties “to ensure these types of issues don’t happen again. It is something that is avoidable.”

Thomas stopped short of saying the latest ballot mishap will be the last in the special GOP primary election between Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod and Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge.

“I hope so,” Thomas said. “Obviously, this is a critical function.”

The ballot problems have campaigns on edge and will create extra work for election offices as ballots are returned to ensure that unaffiliated voters don’t cast ballots in the primary:

The campaigns expressed concern.

 Ainge’s campaign spokesman, Peter Watkins, also called the mistakes unfortunate.

“This is a Republican primary. Our hope is the counties resolve the issue to assure the integrity of the election meant for Republicans only,” he said.

Curtis spokesman Danny Laub said “any mistake with our primary election process is concerning.”

Laub said the campaign has been in touch with the Wasatch County clerk’s office and he’s been told “the appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that only Republican voters will be counted in this election. It’s important we get this right.”

Ken Sumsion, a top aide to Herrod, said he’s comfortable Wasatch County is dealing with the ballot issue.

“We’ll have poll watchers there, and they’ll probably be a little more diligent,” Sumsion said. “It will take longer to count.”

For their part, the counties are letting voters know they can affiliate with a party should they choose to – but they are seeking to walk the line between informing voters and influencing them:

Unaffiliated voters in Utah and Wasatch counties who received the Republican 3rd Congressional District primary ballots are getting notices in the mail explaining that their votes in that race won’t count.

But they are also being told that if they do plan to affiliate with a political party for the primary, they can do so at the polls on Election Day, Aug. 15. There is no Democratic primary in the congressional race.

Unaffiliated voters can, however, vote in nonpartisan municipal races on the ballots they’ve received. There are no municipal races for the unaffiliated voters affected by the ballot issue in Wasatch County, but there are in Utah County.

Thomas said he was comfortable that unaffiliated voters weren’t being unduly influenced to register Republican as a result of getting the wrong ballots.

“We haven’t heard of any concern,” he said, noting the state worked with the Utah GOP and the campaigns on the notices mailed to voters. “We’re just basically informing them of that option, which is not influencing them one way or another.”

Utah County’s clerk/auditor said there was an effort “to find a balance” in the notices sent out Monday.

“We’re always informing people about how they can affiliate on Election Day,” Thompson said. “At the same time, I don’t want to be a vehicle for the Republican Party to increase their rolls.”

I’m curious about what’s causing these problems; the state election director says they’re “avoidable” but so far two counties haven’t been able to avoid them – and even he isn’t sure if these two are the last. Consequently, it will also be interesting to see if these “extra” ballots crop up in other counties – and whether or not they do, if they become an issue once it’s time to start counting. Either way, it’s a good bet that these two counties will be happy to put the special election in their rearview mirror. Stay tuned …