By Cindy St Clair and Daniella Rivera
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OGDEN, Utah (KSL) – When you cast your ballot this year, someone – or something – is watching.
At every unattended ballot box in Utah, you’ll now find an eye in the sky recording every movement throughout the day.
catch scam? It’s a measure introduced by the Utah Legislature this year and is part of several new electoral laws in HB313.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, who said the camera element came after false allegations in other states about ballot filling — submitting fake ballots to change the outcome of the election.
“One of the things we heard particularly from 2020 was that these ballot boxes were unsafe,” Hawkins said. “Not that there was a lot of nefarious activity in Utah, but there were ways that if action wasn’t taken to monitor those ballot boxes, you could probably get away with some things.”
Utah Elections Superintendent Ryan Cowley said it was never an issue here.
“We have never had reports of ballot box tampering or other tampering,” Cowley said.
Cowley and Hawkins agree on one thing: cameras at the ballot box should boost voter confidence.
“Honestly, I think it’s more of a security blanket for voters,” Cowley said. “This is just an additional measure that lawmakers believed would increase that security just a little bit. In the end, it’s a positive thing.”
Weber County clerk/auditor Ricky Hatch is skeptical the cameras will detect fraud.
“Highly unlikely,” said Hatch, who has been a key resource on many parts of HB 313. “Once it goes through that slot, it gets mixed up with all the other ballots. There is no way of attributing a particular ballot to the person who cast it.”
Nor is it illegal for certain people to drop other people’s ballots for them. Utah law states that family members, poll workers, postal workers, and voter-appointed custodians may all place signed and sealed ballots for others.
Fraud, Hatch said, will be discovered when ballots are opened in his office.
“We disclose the voter signature and compare it to the signature that we have on file,” Hatch said. “We are conducting further checks and verifications to ensure this envelope was signed by the actual voter who owns it. This is the ultimate key control for fraud. We don’t really care who drops it in a Dropbox.”
Hundreds of Hours, Thousands of Dollars Weber County has 22 drop boxes, so putting those cameras up didn’t come cheap.
The Utah Legislature provided $500,000 for the cameras and required ballot boxes to be placed in every community. This money had to extend to all counties in Utah.
“We figured the cost would be around $1,500 per camera,” Hatch said. “It turns out it’s about double that.”
Hatch said they quickly used up their earmarked $12,000 and spent another $29,500 from their own county budget to cover the installations. Additional charges apply due to ongoing monthly data storage charges.
KSL investigators submitted public record requests for each county’s expense for their drop box cameras. 23 out of 29 counties responded.
Some, such as Salt Lake, Kane, and Duchesne counties, overspent. These counties also reported more than 100 man hours installing cameras and troubleshooting data storage.
Other counties like Rich, Wasatch, and Grand didn’t have to spend anything on cameras because they already had surveillance cameras installed capturing ballot boxes.
Cache County informed us that they designed their own ballot box for more rural areas, with the camera in the ballot box. They will install four of these and said they will likely spend about $4,000 of their own budget to cover the cost, saying, “The camera surveillance mandate was unexpected and added significant costs to our rural areas.”
County officials told us that while they cover some of the cost of drop-off boxes in the counties, cities also bear the brunt of installing new boxes and cameras. Cities like the one in Duchesne County, whose clerk told us they were waiting for their bills to be sent in for reimbursement.
Based on information provided by these counties as well as information provided by the Office of the Lt. Using data provided to Governor, we have calculated that $243,717.88 has been spent on security cameras and new ballot boxes to date – just under half of the available funds remain.
Hatch also reached out to each county official and estimated the average one-time cost of each camera at $1,148.
“Once this year is over, we can take what money we have left over and distribute it proportionately to the counties that spent a little more than they thought they did,” Cowley said.
counties record; what now? Even if the cameras are watching, chances are the district secretary’s staff isn’t.
Cache County reported that their dedicated rural boxes only record a week’s worth of footage before recording on itself. Regarding the footage, the clerk told us, “It is our policy that we do not review and maintain the video unless a crime is being committed.”
In fact, not a single county we spoke to said they would see the feeds live. They lack the human resources for this.
Storing, reviewing, and making footage available to the public was one of Hatch’s biggest hurdles. One he’s still trying to figure out, with many requests pending for public surveillance camera recording of the June primary.
“Massive problems,” declared Hatch. “It took us about two weeks to figure out how to actually access and download the massive amounts of video without the machine shutting down and get it into a format that we can make available to the people who requested it to have.”
It’s still a problem he’s trying to solve. For the cameras that the district controls, he wants to provide requesters with a link to the footage, or “if posting it to YouTube isn’t a huge time-consuming task, we can do that as well.”
If someone requested all of the camera footage from the day the ballots were mailed through Election Day, they would get 552 hours of video for just one camera.
Requiring all 22 shots from Weber County would result in 12,144 hours of video.
Nobody KSL investigators spoke to said they were streaming footage live from their cameras. Another reason may be privacy. Hatch said they encountered problems with primary election footage due to a nearby library.
“The library has rules that its users have privacy,” Hatch said, “so the older cameras that we have installed in the library capture people who didn’t vote but went into the library at the mailbox. We had to redact these videos to ensure their privacy was maintained.”
Blurring the footage was very time consuming.
Regardless of time, cost, and efficiency, Hatch, Cowley, and Hawkins expressed similar views: making sure people feel safe voting is the top priority of these cameras.
“I think the most important thing is that it adds to voter confidence,” Hatch said. “If I go to a drop box with intentions of committing fraud, I’ll see a camera there and maybe think twice.”
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