SALT LAKE CITY — Two days after the election, several legislative and local races were still too close to call, despite results from more than 50,000 ballots released Thursday afternoon.
That's because at least 187,000 lingering by-mail or provisional ballots still need to be counted, said State Elections Director Mark Thomas.
That tally only includes counts from 15 counties that have reported their numbers to the state. Salt Lake County held the lion's share, with at least 125,000 ballots still waiting to be counted.
That had Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans frustrated Thursday.
"Salt Lake County is grossly overdue in posting election night results. Nearly 48 hours have passed since the polls have closed," Evans said. "This is completely unacceptable."
Rozan Mitchell, county elections director, said her office is working as fast as it can. County elections officials were not expecting such a large volume of mail-in ballots the day before Election Day, or the thousands more placed in drop boxes on election night.
The county elections office also was set back 90 minutes Thursday because the processing room was evacuated after a worker said a ballot was coated in an unidentifiable white powder, Mitchell said. The substance later was determined to not be dangerous by fire officials.
Mitchell said the evacuation certainly didn't help efforts to process the remaining 125,000 ballots, but her staff is working as fast as it can without compromising the verification process.
"Every election is different," she said. "You can just never really predict what's going to happen."
Poll workers also were swamped on Election Day at the county's 37 vote centers, where an unanticipated number of voters decided to cast their ballots in person rather than by mail, forming long lines and resulting in waits as long as three or four hours in some cases.
That had several Utah lawmakers frustrated Wednesday morning. Evans joined that chorus of complaints Thursday, bashing Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen for long waits voters endured at the polls on election night.
Evans said the GOP received reports from "many disenfranchised voters who were unable to wait that long to cast their ballot." He criticized Swensen for not planning to include more than 37 vote centers for the state's most populated county.
"You can't force the voter to vote by mail if they want to vote in person," Evans said. "We don't think that was accounted for properly, and as a result, we had the congestion."
Swensen did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, but Mitchell said the county clerks' office was working hard to sort and tabulate the remaining 125,000 ballots, extending the work week through Veterans Day to keep up.
County elections officials did not realize so many voters would want to vote in person on Election Day until a week before, and by then it was too late to add any polling places, Mitchell said. Plus, the bulk of by-mail ballots dropped off at drop boxes have slowed counting and verification efforts, she said.
"When you have 111,000 ballots received on Election Day, it's really hard to get all those processed any quicker than we are," she said. "There's just no way you can stay ahead of that."
The next batch of results was originally scheduled to be released at 3 p.m. Tuesday, but elections officials said Salt Lake County will post another update at 5 p.m. Friday.
Mitchell said the county will have another 25,000 ballots counted in time for the Friday release.
Because of the long lines to vote and delay in results in Salt Lake County, Evans said he will ask the Utah Lt. Governor's Office to review the county's procedures and make recommendations for needed changes.
Mitchell said she'd "absolutely" welcome feedback and work with the lieutenant governor on any recommendations.
Meanwhile, four House seats and an at-large Salt Lake County Council race continued to hang in the balance Thursday with razor-thin margins, though none of them flipped from election night results.
- House District 32: Democratic challenger Suzanne Harrison led incumbent Rep. Lavar Christensen, R-Draper, 51 percent to 49 percent, or 232 votes. The race widened slightly from election night results, when Christensen was lagging by 195 votes.
- House District 33: Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, led Democrat Peter Tomala 51 percent to 49 percent, or 160 votes, narrowing election night results by three votes.
- House District 44: Democrat Christine Passey led Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, 50 percent to 49 percent, or 65 votes. On election night, Passey was ahead by 226 votes.
- House District 69: Rep. Brad King, D-Price, was trailing GOP challenger Christine Watkins 51 percent to 50 percent, or 379 votes. That's a slightly wider margin than election night results, which showed King losing by 369 votes.
- Salt Lake County: At-large County Councilman Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, was still lagging behind Democratic challenger Catherine Kanter, but by less than 1 percent or 1,400 votes. Kanter had a 4,300-vote lead on election night.