SALT LAKE CITY — Utah County's first ever all vote-by-mail election is off to a rocky start.
It turns out that all unaffiliated 3rd Congressional District voters in Utah County were mistakenly sent ballots intended only to go to Republican voters thanks to an "unfortunate clerical error," Utah County Clerk/Auditor Bryan Thompson confirmed Thursday.
Thompson had said late Wednesday that only some ballots had been affected, but he received confirmation from his staff Thursday that the mistake impacts all unaffiliated voters.
The error led to the misprinting of nearly 70,000 ballots — and is expected to cost the county an additional $15,000 to $20,000 to inform voters of the error, Thompson said.
"We cross-checked, triple-checked, but in this particular case it did not get the appropriate level of scrutiny it should have," the county clerk said. "We're all human, mistakes happen, but that being said it's still something that needs an additional level of oversight to review and keep this particular mistake from ever happening again."
As a result, all of Utah County's 68,028 unaffiliated voters within the 3rd Congressional District have received or will be receiving a ballot in the mail that includes not just their municipal primary races — if they have any — but also an option to vote in the congressional GOP primary, which is supposed to be exclusive to registered Republican voters.
Thompson said his office will ensure that any unaffiliated votes aren't counted in the special election primary by sorting them using a code on the back of the envelope and "turning off" that segment of the ballot as they're scanned and processed.
The additional cost, however, will come from printing off some 70,000 mailers to notify the unaffiliated voters of the error and that their vote will be counted in municipal races, but not in the 3rd District race because it's a closed primary.
The mailer will also tell unaffiliated voters that if they want to vote in the special election, they will have to affiliate as a Republican at the polls on Aug. 15, Thompson said.
Daisy Thomas, chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, expressed concern when she heard about the scope of the error and whether it could skew unaffiliated voters in the favor of the GOP.
"I would hope they're not using county resources to recruit for the Republican Party or any other party, period," Thomas said, worried that Utah County's mailer telling voters they can affiliate to vote in the race may cross that line.
But Thompson said his office is working with the Utah Lt. Governor's Office to ensure the "language" of that mailer doesn't appear to encourage voters to register as Republicans, but to only inform that they have the option.
"It will say something like, 'Those of you who were planning to affiliate, this is a reminder you have to do it at the polls on Election Day,'" Thompson said.
He expects that up to $20,000 in postcard costs won't require him to ask for additional money from the Utah County Commission because he budgeted for some unexpected costs in the $500,000 budget adjustment to pay for the special election this year.
State Elections Director Mark Thomas called the error "unfortunate," particularly because it impacts and may potentially confuse nearly 70,000 voters.
"Obviously when it comes to an error on the ballot that has already been sent out to voters, it's something that requires great care to ensure the appropriate votes are tallied," Thomas said, adding that his office will work carefully with Utah County to make sure the ballots are processed correctly.
"This is obviously a very sensitive and critical part of the process and we need to make sure we get it right," he said.
The three Republican candidates vying to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz said they were informed of the error on Wednesday.
"Any mistakes with our primary election process is concerning," Provo Mayor John Curtis said in a statement. "I've been in touch this morning with the Utah County Clerk's Office and they tell me that the appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that only Republican votes will be counted in this election. It's important we get this right. Please report any irregularities to the Utah County Clerk's Office."
"I think it will all work out in the end," said former state lawmaker Chris Herrod.
Michael McCarlie, campaign manager for Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge, said Wednesday: "This is obviously a Republican primary, and we want to make sure it's the Republicans who choose their nominee," but left it to election officials to "get to the bottom of it."
Utah County Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson said he wasn't very concerned about the error, confident that it won't "skew" any results of the 3rd District race
"I'm not looking to chop anybody's heads," he said, noting that election officials informed him of the issue Wednesday. "Things happen."
He said "you can go down the rabbit hole" of wondering whether the error might lead more unaffiliated voters to perhaps choose to vote in the Republican Primary, but he doesn't believe that's likely.
"I think the number of people who have chosen to be unaffiliated will remain unaffiliated," he said, but he added that under state law unaffiliated voters have the right to affiliate if they want. "If they do choose to, I welcome them into the party."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the error and the resulting mailers "might spur a few people" to affiliate as Republicans, but "It's not likely" many will.
"Most (unaffiliated voters) have already made that conscious decision and will stick with it," Burbank said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche