Utah losing nearly 25 percent of county clerks

With municipal primary and general elections looming this year, Utah is facing a major shake-up in the ranks of state and local election officials.

SALT LAKE CITY – With municipal primary elections just days away, Utah is experiencing a major shake-up within the ranks of election officials statewide.

On July 30, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced the resignation of Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections. Lee’s departure from the state government to pursue other opportunities comes in the wake of the replacement of the county clerks of eight of the state’s 29 counties in the past year.

The timing of those changes is inauspicious at best, coming as recent changes to state elections laws increase the responsibilities of county clerks in the upcoming primary and general elections.

“Justin’s faithful execution of election law has been a role model for elections officers across the state and nation,” Henderson said in a prepared statement announcing Lee’s departure. “He helped ensure the security of our elections, integrated new technology and engendered the trust of the voters. I’m sorry to see him go, but I’m so grateful for his service to the people of Utah.”

Lee started working in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office in 2010. In 2012, he became deputy director of elections and was promoted to director of elections in 2017.

During his tenure, Lee assisted in transitioning the state to by-mail elections, helped implement new updated voting equipment and provided counties with additional cyber and physical security options.

Those election integrity efforts include requirements for county clerks across the state to digitally verify all signatures on mail-in ballots in both primary and general elections.

In 2022, those new duties will increase again when legislation introduced by Rep. Dan Johnson (R-District 4) takes effect, allowing Utah voters to digitally track their mail-in ballots throughout the election process and to correct any problems that might arise in the counting of their ballots.

Cache County Clerk/Auditor Jess Bradfield suggests that those changes to election laws may be impacting the decisions of veteran county clerks to leave their positions.

“Some (clerks) are leaving for higher paying jobs, not retiring,” Bradfield says. “But most also acknowledge the impact of high levels of stress associated with their jobs and heavy election law regulations without receiving any additional staff support.”

Bradfield’s appointment as county clerk/auditor came following the retirement of Jill Zollinger in the summer of 2020 for family reasons. Since then, Lee and seven county clerks have announced their intent to leave their offices.

In Utah County, former clerk Amelia Powers Gardner resigned her post in spring to run for appointment as a county commissioner. Gardner had previously modernized the way the clerk’s office served Utah’s second-largest county by population.

In June, John David Nielson announced his resignation as San Juan County clerk to pursue another opportunity. San Juan is one of Utah’s smallest counties in population, but has some of the state’s most challenging election requirements as a result of a law suit by the Navajo Nation.

Marilyn Gillette, the clerk/auditor of Toole County, announced her decision to retire in July. Toole is Utah’s second-largest county in area and seventh-largest in terms of population.

In June, Kim Hafen retired as clerk/auditor of Washington County, Utah’s fifth-largest county by population.

In Summit County, long-term clerk/auditor Kent Jones retired in April. His unexpired term will be served out by newcomer Evelyn Furse, who campaigned for the position by pledging to reform local elections.

An outsider was also selected to replace the late Brent Titcomb, who passed away in 2020 while serving as clerk/auditor in Wasatch County.

Most recently, San Pete County clerk Sandy Neill announced that she will not seek re-election in 2022.

Bradfield said that those changes collectively represent a nearly 25 percent turnover in county clerks statewide.

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