We spent election night with Sherrie Swensen – her last as SL County Secretary

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Sherrie Swensen is so eager to reach her goal that she shoves her pink phone case into a gold-colored elevator door to try and stop it from closing.

No luck. She catches the next one.

It’s Tuesday, election night, and the longtime county clerk is traversing Salt Lake County’s sprawling government center, stopping briefly at her office before moving on to her next media interview.

She pauses on the bridge between the buildings and presses her face against the glass to catch a glimpse of the line of cars snaking outside to the ballot box. Furious. It’s not too long. Those voters can cast their ballots until 8 p.m.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County employee Sherrie Swensen pauses to peer out the window at the line of cars waiting, Tuesday, November 8, 2022, at the Government Center of to cast Salt Lake County ballots.

In between calls with reporters, she calls to check lines at polling stations across the country. There is a slight delay at Trolley Square, but otherwise this democracy drama unfolds according to the script.

When the sun sets on her last day in office in January, Swensen will have accumulated 32 years of public service, chaired more than twice that many elections and overseen the counting of millions of votes.

This election is her last as county election chief before passing the baton to her apparent successor, Chief Deputy Clerk Lannie Chapman.

“Hard to believe,” says Swensen. “It’s like I can’t imagine not being a part of it anymore.”

To an outsider, the heart of the county’s election operations may seem like a hive of bureaucracy. It’s exciting for Swensen. The place where “we the people” speaks loudest.

Tedious but rewarding work

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Secretary Sherrie Swensen walks through the yellow-taped corridors of ballot-counting headquarters to show observers where to stand as they make their final election to the government from Salt Lake County Monitors Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

In a fluorescent-lit basement room with a yellowish hue, dozens of workers create the night’s soundtrack — a constant crackle of perforated labels being plucked from mailed ballots to reveal voters’ signatures for verification.

“It’s a lot of hard, tedious work,” she says. “But you know, it’s rewarding because so many people are empowered to vote and seeing all of this is the result of all the work and effort that we put into it.”

For years, sorting ballots, checking signatures and tabulating votes went largely unnoticed, but that changed in 2020, when voting systems — and the people who oversee them — were put at the center of a national debate.

But even with the extra attention, only a handful of election observers turned up that night.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen discusses the process of counting thousands of ballots while overseeing her final election night at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. Recent changes in the state gave the public more access to poll watchers, who were allowed to stand in an area dubbed “Yellow Brick Street.”

They stroll down a path marked with yellow tape — dubbed the “yellow brick path” by Swensen — occasionally snapping a few photos on their cell phones and whispering a few soft words to each other.

They’re not causing any problems, but because state legislatures have given them closer access than ever — they can be within 6 feet of the census — additional sheriff’s deputies are on hand.

It’s sad for Swensen to see the politicization of her profession. Administering elections, issuing marriage licenses, processing passports, keeping records for the county council—all of these boil down to administrative tasks.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City County Clerk Sherrie Swensen exits the table room as security forces are in attendance during her last election at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

“That’s all,” she says, as the ballots fall onto the table beside her as helping hands work through another pile.

Swensen has devoted much of her career to making sure voters — as many as are legally entitled — get those ballots into this room safely and securely.

After taking office, she mailed registration forms to hundreds of locations, visited auto and boat shows to reach voters, and led a team developing an application that ultimately fueled online voter registration nationwide.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, left, hugs Deputy Clerk Lannie Chapman at the Salt Lake City County Government Center Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

Along the way, Swensen defied partisan odds as a Utah Democrat, racking up victories in eight straight elections.

“I think it’s great that we’re allowing people to vote and that their voices can be heard,” she says. “I think it’s important in democracy to have more people participate, make it convenient and accessible.”

In short, she believes in the choice. More ballots. More work for her. More joy on her face.

A long, tiring night

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City County Clerk Sherrie Swensen spends time in the table room on Tuesday, November 8, 2022 while election observers keep a watchful eye through the window at the Salt Lake County Government Center.

Despite all the excitement that surrounds the campaign season, there is no aura of anticipation that fills the election management center. There are no passionate speeches to campaign workers or thunderous applause when the first numbers come in.

It’s all business down here.

But it’s Swensen’s favorite part of the evening. It is a sense of accomplishment to let voters see the results of their civic duty.

Tonight, those initial results come later than usual after Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson has notified employees across the state that they must hold early returns until every voter in line has cast a ballot.

Salt Lake County normally has its first numbers tonight minutes after 8 p.m., they come out around 9:30 p.m., and another update doesn’t land until just before 11 p.m

Swensen spends most of the evening in isolation in the tab room, an area reserved for poll workers but visible to the public through large windows. She occasionally shows up to take questions from reporters (yes, I’ve bothered her a lot) and observers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen gives an interview to a reporter at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

As the night progressed, activity around the polling station died down.

The workers who spent hours processing ballots are gradually leaving, the cohort of sheriff’s deputies tasked with securing the area is shrinking, and all but two of those who signed on as observers are withdrawing , while the hours pass between updates.

Swensen says a new voting system — and new guidelines for correcting ballots containing ineligible enrollment candidates — resulted in reporting gaps that led to the final update being released after 2 a.m. Wednesday

This late update means Swensen doesn’t make it home until around 3:30am

It’s not the last night of her term, but there isn’t much time to think as her career as the guardian of democracy comes to an end.

“I was too tired to think much,” she says nine hours later, laughing. “I was just glad we were through for the night and wanted to go home and get a few hours sleep.”

However, to be clear, this election is not over. The last selection will not take place until November 22nd.

Swensen is still counting ballots, just as Salt Lake County voters counted on them.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Secretary Sherrie Swensen pauses for a moment late in the evening to oversee her final election at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, November 8, 2022.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/11/12/we-spent-election-night-with/ We spent election night with Sherrie Swensen – her last as SL County Secretary

Justin Scacco

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