CACHE COUNTY – The business of the Cache County Clerk’s Office is anything but “business as usual” nowadays.
Under statutes passed by the 2020 Legislature, all municipal elections in Utah must now be conducted primarily via mail-in balloting.
Cache County Clerk Jess Bradfield says that many of the innovations his office has implemented in recent months have been aimed at preparing to meet the challenge of helping local cities manage that transition to voting by mail.
“We’ve maximized all of our office space,” Bradfield explains. “We’ve shored up ballot security for all the upcoming election cycles. We’ve brought in technology to cut costs and increase efficiency for the public.”
The county’s new chief deputy clerk, Justin Anderson, adds that the clerk’s office is making a good faith effort to support local cities in transitioning to mail-in balloting through an inter-local agreement open to all 19 of the county’s communities.
“We offered all of them two options,” says Anderson, an elections expert recruited from the Utah County Clerk’s Office. “The first was to contract with the county for us to take over the lion’s share of the election workload that the city governments are not equipped to handle. That’s because vote-by-mail is very labor intensive, requiring a lot of staff, equipment and programs.
“For the cities that choose not to pursue that route, we extended a friendly offer to serve as a resource to help them navigate the change in procedures in-house … We can provide training, insights, feedback and guidance as they move forward. “
“Regardless of whether or not any particular city contracts with us (to handle their mail-in voting),” Bradfield emphasizes, “we will be required as a county to verify their ballot signatures. So, even if a city opts to run their own election, we will still play a major part in every city’s elections by scanning the signed ballots to ensure the authenticity of those signatures.”
So far, six municipalities have signed onto the county inter-local voting agreement, while others are still in the decision-making process. Those cities are Cornish, Hyde Park, Millville, Newton, Richmond and Smithfield.
“We just don’t have the ability to handle mail-in voting in-house,” says Justin Lewis, who serves as city recorder for both Richmond and Smithfield. “So, we’re only too happy to contract with Cache County to manage our upcoming election.”
During a presentation to the Logan City Council on April 6, Anderson explained that the county’s estimated cost for assuming responsibility for a city’s entire election process would translate to $1.95 per ballot, including printing and postage expenses.
While Logan Municipal Council Member Jeannie F. Simmonds took exception to that price estimate, Lewis’ response was more philosophical.
“It’s hard to fault the county for its per-ballot cost when most of that amount is two-way postage expenses,” he says. “We’ll budget for the worst-case amount and hope that we’ll get a break on postage costs when some voters return their ballots through drop boxes rather than through the mail.”
Bradfield was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of former county clerk Jill Zollinger after being picked for that post in a GOP special election in September of 2020.
He campaigned for the GOP nod on a platform of promises to streamline and modernize processes; increase election integrity and security; provide better customer service; and increase voter education. With that background, Bradfield considers his selection by Cache County Republicans to be a mandate to shake things up in the clerk’s office.
Bradfield explains that finding the time to prepare for and perform the increased role in local elections was a challenge that necessitated automating many of the processes that the staff of the clerk’s office had traditionally performed on a face-to-face basis.
Those processes include applying for a marriage license, applying for a business license, requesting information or documents under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), making a voter public service request and submitting a petition for annexation of property. All of those functions can now be initiated online via the County Clerk’s webpage.
Streamlining those processes has been convenient for the public and given the staff of the clerk’s office the opportunity to refocus their efforts, according to Bradfield.
“With marriage licenses,” says elections clerk Bryson Behm, “people still have to come in since we can’t ask for social security numbers online due to confidentially issues.
“Before the marriage license process went online, it used to take us about 20 minutes to fill out all the necessary paperwork when a couple came into the office. Now it’s done in five minutes.
“Young people come in (to finalize their marriage licenses) and say: ‘My parents said this is going to be a big pain’,” Behm laughs. “By the time they can say that, we’re done!”
The recent changes in the County Clerk’s Office also resulted in an almost total turnover of its staff.
“Coming into this new elected post with a Human Resources background,” Bradfield says, “turnover is to be expected … In some cases, that’s unfortunate. But it’s also something that every administrator, every business owner, every executive and every manger has encountered … “
That view is shared by Dr. Tim Gardner, the director of the Master of Human Resources Program at Utah State University.
“A change in leadership is a major factor in this type of ‘collective turnover’,” Gardner explains. “That’s the turnover rate of a group of people in a department, business unit or organization.
“When there is a change of leadership, turnover generally increases among the people that report to the new manager. The longer that the previous manager was in that role, the greater the ‘collective turnover’ rate of the group supervised by the new manager.”
“Things change all the time,” Anderson observes. “There’s always new competition, new challenges and new rules appearing. For people who weren’t accustomed to changing all the time, experiencing even slight changes can feel more traumatic than they really are. That’s not faulting anybody; it’s just human nature.”
Sarah Price has worked in the clerk’s office on-and-off in a variety of part-time roles for about three years. She sees the recent changes there in a positive light.
“Jess is a real presence in the office,” Price explains. “He floats around, checking on people and answering questions. He has a lot of one-on-one interaction with all of us, asking how we’re doing and if we need any help.”
Bradfield emphasizes that one of the biggest changes in the culture of the clerk’s office is that Price and new staff members are now being cross-trained on all of the office’s procedures. Price agrees that was a welcome adjustment.
“Years ago, when I was first hired on,” Price explains, “I was strictly on the auditor side of the house. So, I didn’t know how to do marriage certificates or anything else on the clerk’s side.
“Since being re-hired by Jess, I’ve already been deputized as a clerk, trained on marriage certificates and all the other customer-service related tasks,” she adds. “It’s a lot less stressful now, because if someone comes into the office, I know that I’ve got the training to help them.”
“I think what we’re seeing are good changes in the office …” says part-time election clerk Tiandra Edward. “Everything we’re changing is being done with the public in mind. While a new procedure might be a little more difficult from our point of view, it’s still good because it benefits the public. After all, that’s why we’re here.”