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Do costly election security measures hit the mark?

<i>Daniella Rivera/KSL</i><br/>Ballot box is equipped with a camera in Salt Lake County.
Daniella Rivera/KSL
Daniella Rivera/KSL
Ballot box is equipped with a camera in Salt Lake County.

By Cindy St. Clair and Daniella Rivera

Click here for updates on this story

    OGDEN, Utah (KSL) — When you cast your vote this year, someone — or something — is watching.

At every unattended ballot drop box in Utah, you’ll now find an eye in the sky, recording every movement, all day long.

Catching fraud? It’s a measure put in place this year by Utah lawmakers, part of several new election laws in HB313.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who said the camera element came about after false allegations in other states about ballot stuffing — submitting fake ballots to change the outcome of the election.

“One of the things that we heard coming out of 2020 especially, was just these voter ballot boxes were unsecure,” Hawkins said. “Not that there was a lot of nefarious activity in Utah, but there were opportunities that you could probably get away with some stuff if there wasn’t an action taken to surveil these ballot boxes.”‘

Utah elections director Ryan Cowley said that’s never been an issue here.

“We’ve never had any reports of people tampering or anything with the ballot boxes,” Cowley said.

Cowley and Hawkins are on the same page about one thing: cameras on the ballot drop boxes are about instilling voter confidence.

“Honestly, I think it’s more of a security blanket for voters,” Cowley said. “This is just one extra measure that the legislature felt like would just increase that security a little bit. It’s a positive thing, in the end.”

Weber County clerk/auditor Ricky Hatch is skeptical the cameras will catch fraud.

“Highly unlikely,” said Hatch, who was a key resource on many parts of HB 313. “Once it goes through that slot, it gets mixed with all the other ballots. There is no way to track a particular ballot to the person who dropped it.”

It’s also not illegal for certain people to drop other people’s ballots for them. Utah law says family members, poll workers, postal workers, and caregivers appointed by the voter can all drop signed and sealed ballots for others.

Fraud, Hatch said, is caught when the ballots are opened at his office.

“We expose the voter signature, we compare it to the signature we have on file,” Hatch explained. “We do other checks and verifications to make sure that that envelope was signed by the actual voter that it belongs to. That’s the crucial key control for fraud. Who drops it in a drop box doesn’t really matter to us.”

Hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars Weber County has 22 drop boxes, so setting up those cameras wasn’t cheap.

The Utah Legislature appropriated $500,000 for the cameras, as well as newly mandated ballot boxes to be erected in every municipality. That money had to stretch across every county in Utah.

“We thought the cost would be about $1,500 per camera,” Hatch said. “It’s turned out to be about double that.”

Hatch said they burned through their earmarked money, $12,000, fast, and spent an additional $29,500 out of their own county budget to cover the installations. Additional charges will accrue, as there are ongoing monthly charges for data storage.

KSL Investigators filed public records requests for every county’s cost for their drop box cameras. Twenty-three of 29 counties responded.

Some, like Salt Lake, Kane, and Duchesne counties, spent more than allotted. These counties also reported more than 100 hours of labor to install cameras and troubleshoot data storage.

Other counties, like Rich, Wasatch, and Grand, didn’t have to spend anything on cameras, as they already had security cameras installed that captured ballot boxes.

Cache County told us they’ve designed their own ballot box for more rural areas, with the camera inside of the box. They will install four of those, and indicated they’ll likely spend about $4,000 of their own budget to cover costs, saying “the mandate for camera surveillance was unexpected and added significant costs to our rural areas.”

County clerks told us that while they are covering some of the costs for county-based drop boxes, cities are also bearing the brunt of installing new boxes and cameras. Cities like those in Duchesne County, whose clerk told us she is waiting for their bills to send for reimbursement.

Based on information provided by these counties, as well as data provided by the Lt. Governor’s office, we calculated $243,717.88 had been spent on security cameras and new ballot boxes so far — just under half of available funding remains.

Hatch also reached out to every county clerk, and hearing back from 19 counties, estimated the average one-time cost for each camera to be $1,148.

“Once this year is over, whatever money we have leftover, we’ll be able to go back and redistribute proportionally among those counties that did spend a little bit more than they thought,” Cowley said.

Counties are recording; now what? Even though the cameras are watching, it’s likely the county clerk staff is not.

Cache County reported that their special rural boxes only record a week’s worth of footage before it records over itself. As for the footage, the clerk told us, “It is our policy that we do not check and maintain the video unless a crime is committed.”

In fact, not one county we spoke with said they would be watching the feeds live. They don’t have the staff resources to do so.

Storing, reviewing, and providing footage to the public was one of the biggest hurdles for Hatch. One that he is still trying to figure out, with many public record requests for security camera footage from the primary election in June still open.

“Massive issues,” Hatch explained. “It took us about two weeks to figure out how to actually access and download the massive amounts of video without the machine timing out and being able to get it into a format that we could provide to the people who requested it.”

It’s still an issue he’s trying to solve. For the cameras the county controls, he’s looking at providing a link to the footage for requestors, or “if posting to YouTube is not a heavy time burden, we may do that as well.”

If someone were to request all camera footage from the day ballots went into the mail, through election day, they’d be getting 552 hours of video for just one camera.

Requesting all 22 of Weber County’s footage would mean 12,144 hours of video.

No one KSL Investigators spoke with said they would be streaming footage live from their cameras. Another reason may be privacy. Hatch said they ran into issues with the primary election footage due to a nearby library.

“The library has rules that their patrons have privacy,” Hatch said, “and so the older cameras that we had in place at the library capture people who weren’t voting but who were walking by the drop box into the library. We had to blur those videos to make sure that their privacy was maintained.”

Blurring the footage was heavily time-consuming.

Regardless of time, cost, and efficacy, Hatch, Cowley, and Hawkins echoed similar sentiments: making sure people feel secure about casting their vote is the main priority with these cameras.

“I think the main thing is it contributes to voter confidence,” Hatch said. “As I’m going up to a drop box, if I have the intention of committing fraud, I’m going to see a camera there and maybe think twice.”

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