If you were one of the thousands of Utahns who cast their ballot by dropping your ballot into a county dropbox, chances are you were filmed.
It’s a state requirement that has cost some counties thousands of dollars with no clear indication of how the cameras are protecting Utah voters, according to Salt Lake County’s top elections official.
Presented by state lawmakers as an election security measure, the cameras were included in House Bill 313, which was signed after the 2022 legislature and went into effect in May. The law required every unattended ballot box to be under 24-hour video surveillance.
Although HB313 provided over $600,000 for Utah’s 29 counties to pay for additional drop boxes and cameras in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, some counties still have additional costs to comply with regulations.
Sherrie Swensen, a Salt Lake County employee for more than 30 years, told The Salt Lake Tribune that her office spent over $50,000 to purchase and install cameras at all 24 of the county’s ballot boxes. Swensen noted that it was unclear at the time how much of that amount the state would pay.
While she was still in the process of completing her final elections before retirement, Swensen said the cameras were working as they should have during this year’s election cycle, but she doesn’t see much benefit in watching voters cast their ballots hand over.
“I think (the cameras) are really pointless,” Swensen said. “They’re expensive and I don’t see that they’ve really achieved anything they offer.”
She added that HB313 had no county retention requirements for camera footage, so Salt Lake County will retain the footage like all other election records, which she says will last 22 months.
Although the cameras only start recording when they detect motion, the county’s 24 dropboxes have generated thousands of hours of footage.
Weber County clerk/auditor Ricky Hatch estimates that his office spent about $29,500 of the county’s money on the cameras, which doesn’t include funds provided by the state. He said some cities need to upgrade their camera systems, which the county reimburses to the cities.
Hatch said the county didn’t initially feel it needed to buy cameras. However, the mailboxes in the district libraries needed new cameras after he found that the current cameras were recording library visitors, which is not allowed.
Weber County had to purchase a total of six cameras, Hatch said, five for each of the county’s libraries and one more to be installed above the drop box at the Weber Center, where the county offices are located. Hatch also estimated that the cameras cost $55 per month for data usage and the account used to manage the footage.
Hatch said he also took it upon himself to survey all 29 counties of Utah after HB313 passed, and 19 counties responded.
Hatch estimated that the 19 counties spent about $1,148 per camera on average, and the average one-time equipment cost for each county was $7,792. However, Hatch also noted that three smaller counties that responded did not spend money on cameras because they either already had surveillance cameras on the drop boxes or the drop boxes were not unattended.
However, at least one county hasn’t spent much to comply with state laws.
Brian McKenzie, the deputy chief of the Davis County Clerk/Auditor’s Office, which oversees the county’s elections, told The Tribune the county is able to reduce labor and maintenance costs by engaging with the county’s IT department who installed the cameras. Davis County’s primary expense was related to the cameras, McKenzie said, although most of those costs were covered by money provided by the state.
“So (there was) a fairly small tax impact on the county just because of our circumstances,” McKenzie said. “We only had to install very few cameras. We were able to install them ourselves. And we were able to get that money back from the state.”
McKenzie, who has held tours of his polling office to help people understand the ballot counting process, said maintenance is always an ongoing cost, but it is a cost of doing business to keep the county’s elections secure.
Swensen said some voters are concerned that people are throwing numerous fake ballots into dropboxes to influence elections, which Swensen calls ridiculous because fake ballots “could never get through our system.”
The conspiracy theory of dumping fake ballots in drop boxes is the premise for the discredited film 2,000 Mules, which baselessly claims organizations paid people to stuff drop boxes with fraudulent ballots in states won by President Joe Biden in 2020.
At least one future Utah county official believes fraud has plagued the recent election.
In May, Aaron Davidson, the Republican nominee recently elected future Utah County clerk, addressed a panel prior to a screening of the film in southern Jordan.
Swensen told The Tribune the motion-activated cameras caught something interesting that she wasn’t expecting.
“I got a movie where a spider builds its web,” Swensen said, laughing. “That was the funny thing (camera) activated because of a spider… we kind of laughed at that.”