‘It’s kind of unfortunate’: Washington County clerk/auditor laments turnout for local-level elections

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Clerk/Auditor’s Office recently reported that the official totals for voter turnout for the 2021 elections countywide were a little less than 42.5%, a far cry from the over 91% turnout seen in 2020.

Washington County Clerk/Auditor Susan Lewis shares the overall voter turnout for the 2021 municipal elections with the Washington County Commission, St. George, Utah, Nov. 16, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Washington County / CEC, St. George News

What was so different about last year? It was a presidential election versus this year’s municipal elections.

“People get really excited on a presidential election and vote,” Washington County Clerk/Auditor Susan Lewis told the Washington County Commission during its Nov. 16 meeting, “and then, when they have a lot more say on a city level, many of them don’t vote.”

During the 2020 election, Washington County counted 100,109 registered active voters on the rolls and sent out an equal number of ballots. Of those ballots, 91,594 were counted, making for a voter turnout of 91.41%.

Kim Hafen, the county clerk/auditor at that time, called the turnout “unprecedented.”

In contrast, the 2021 election cycle, in which 15 municipalities used Washington County as their election vendor for a total of 97,921 active registered voters, there were 41,575 ballots counted. This made for a turnout of 42.46%.

The last municipal elections, which was held in 2019, had a similar turnout of around 40%.

Ballot dropbox at the Washington County Administration Building, St. George, Utah, Oct. 19, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

During a previous election, Hafen told St. George News he found it sad that not as many people were interested in their local elections. He said these local officials are in more of a position to directly impact residents’ life for better or worse than someone in Salt Lake City or Washington D.C.

Lewis told St. George News after the County Commission meeting that she felt the same way.

“Personally, I think it’s kind of unfortunate that people aren’t more involved in their municipal and their local elections,” she said. “You have a lot more influence and ability to be heard from your own city council, your own city government, then you do the president of the United States.”

Granted, she said, there isn’t the same amount of rhetoric or excitement seemingly had in local elections as there is in presidential ones, which is likely a part of why there is less turnout on the local level.

However, local representatives are the ones who are most likely to listen to their constituents and actually seek voter input on the local issues as well, she added.

Despite the decreased turnout from last year, Lewis told the County Commission that her office has continued to see an increased use of the vote-by-mail system the county shifted to in 2018.

“More people use the vote by mail – particularly our dropboxes,” she said. “We had about 10,000 more (ballots) come through the dropboxes this year than the U.S. mail.”

In this file photo, people vote in-person at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George, Utah, Oct. 28. 2020 | Photo by St. George News

Lewis said that in the recent November election, only 542 of the 41,575 total ballots were cast in person at voting locations using the traditional machine method.

Lewis later shared with St. George News why she and others in the county feel voting-by mail has continued to be popular among voters.

“We continue to see that (when) people get their ballots, they sit down at their kitchen table, they’re able to look up and read about who their candidates are, and they like that,” she said. “They like to be able to say, ‘Oh, what was the race, who was that I liked?’ And it continues to grow (in popularity).”

Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow said during the meeting that he had volunteered to help process ballots sent into the county in order to witness and experience that process for himself so he could gauge the county’s level of voting integrity.

“There are redundancies upon redundancies there to ensure voting integrity,” Snow said, and he both congratulated and complimented the job Lewis and her office had done during the election and resulting ballot processing.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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