ACLU report: Ogden mayor's campaign actions highlight need to strengthen

Kristen Moulton // Published April 26, 2008 in The Salt Lake Tribune

Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey's 2007 re-election campaign violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws proscribing electioneering and voter intimidation, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report Friday.

The ACLU also blamed Weber County poll workers' blunders and poorly written state election laws for leaving some voters feeling shut out.

"Our findings highlight the ways in which our voting laws are vulnerable to manipulation for the purpose of disenfranchising voters," the report said.

Godfrey said Friday he has no interest in reading the report and called the 45-minute interview he had with ACLU staffers "ridiculous" because the civil-rights organization clearly believed unfounded accusations from his detractors.

The report followed a six-month investigation into allegations from more than 20 voters that their provisional ballots were wrongly discounted and that Godfrey's campaign improperly used voter challenges and tried to sway residents at the polls.

Godfrey defeated challenger Susan Van Hooser by 449 votes to win a third term, but the outcome was in doubt until a week after the Nov. 6 runoff because of the high number of provisional ballots - 1,646 - cast by voters who could not prove they were registered or who were challenged by Godfrey supporters.

Many of the 146 challenges were without merit and resulted in an unknown number of voters leaving the polls without casting provisional ballots, said ACLU attorney Marina Lowe.

Of the provisional ballots, 298 were discounted due to technical or other errors that poll workers could have avoided, Lowe said. Another 180 were tossed because voters were not registered.

Among poll workers' mistakes were that some refused to accept proper identification from would-be voters, the ACLU said, and others gave voters pencils when the provisional ballots explicitly said such ballots would be discarded.

Utah law allows court challenges only if the election outcome would change, so there will be no lawsuit, the ACLU said. Nor will the organization press for criminal charges against Godfrey or his campaign. The alleged incidents fall short of the technical definitions for the misdemeanor crimes of electioneering and voter intimidation, the report said.

Nonetheless, the alleged incidents "seem inconsistent with the values underlying voter-protection laws: To ensure that voters feel comfortable casting a ballot for whomever they choose," the report said.

Among the electioneering accusations were that Godfrey had campaign signs within 50 feet of the poll entrance at Carl H. Taylor Elementary; that Godfrey's family members were present and greeting voters by name; and that poll watchers for the mayor had documents showing his name visible to voters.

Godfrey rejected the accusations. He said he had no campaign signs near polls. His poll watchers did indeed carry letters verifying they represented his campaign, but that's required by law, he noted.

As for family members at the polls, he said, "Are you saying my family members do not have a right to go to the polls and say 'hi' to people if they know them?"

Weber County Clerk Alan McEwan said he had not seen the report, but he generally agrees that Utah's election laws need to be improved.
ACLU seeks improvements in Utah

The ACLU is pressing for the following election reforms to apply to Utah elections procedures:

* One measure would allow incomplete provisional ballots to be corrected within 48 hours of being cast and would require challenges from non-election officials well in advance of an election, giving the challenging voter time to respond.

* A second bill would allow Election Day registration, as used in a number of other states, and eliminate the need for provisional ballots.

*The group also intends to press for statewide standardized training of poll workers.

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