At some point in almost every voter’s life, there is a moment while filling out a ballot that you reach the section titled County, and you pause. You glance at the offices listed and are faced with your own ignorance. Not only do you barely recognize any of the candidates’ names, you also realize you don’t really understand the role of a county commissioner, auditor, or the other county officials on the ballot.
This article will help address that feeling by describing roles of the of the county officials that were on the most recent ballot, as well as providing a wrap-up of Utah county election results.
County Results Wrap-Up
With some notable exceptions, most races for county attorney, auditor, clerk, sheriff, commissioner (or council) were a foregone conclusion.
Of the 160 elections for the county offices that took place in Utah this November, only forty-eight (or 30 percent) had more than one candidate in the general election. Of these forty-eight contested races, only twenty-six of them (or about 16 percent) were competitive enough that the opponents garnered more than 35 percent of the vote. Furthermore, more than half of these competitive races were concentrated in three counties: Salt Lake, Grand, and San Juan.
While a number of conclusions could be drawn from this data, the key takeaway is that in Utah, the caucus/convention system and the subsequent primary elections remain the key battleground for most county offices.
So which elections were the notable exceptions, and what were the results?
- The Salt Lake County Council shifted from a 6-3 Republican majority to a 5-4 Republican majority.
- The three-member San Juan County Commission, whose jurisdiction covers a large area just south of Moab, flipped from a 2-1 Democratic majority to a 3-0 Republican majority. The race for San Juan County Commission District #2 was the closest race for county office in the state with Silvia Stubbs (R) defeating the incumbent Willie Grayeyes (D) by just nineteen votes.
- The Summit County Council, whose jurisdiction includes Park City, remains in a 5-0 democratic majority, with the two Republican candidates each getting about 43% of the vote in their races.
- The Grand County Commission, whose jurisdiction includes Moab and a large area north of it, experienced its first election since converting from a nonpartisan seven-member council to a partisan commission. Nevertheless, most county races featured close contests between candidates who did not choose to affiliate, with the commission races resulting in a partisan split.
Now, let’s address the roles of the offices that were on the most recent ballot:
County Commissioners/County Council
These officials generally garner the most attention in county elections as they are the officers with the authority to make and change laws. They set policies that influence whether businesses want to locate in your county, shape county budget priorities, and determine planning and zoning for the unincorporated areas within the county. In addition, they have jurisdiction over a department whose role came to the forefront during COVID-19—the county health department.
Lastly, it’s useful to address a common misconception about county commissioners/councilors—they don’t really exist at a level “higher” than your city or town council. They can’t override your municipal ordinances and zoning, and your mayor or city council aren’t subordinate to them. In short, it’s useful to think of these officials as the lawmakers for the unincorporated part of a county and the officials who coordinate countywide services and infrastructure.
We tend to think of auditors as those hired to look at financial records and search for errors or potential fraud. While that is an element of the county auditor’s job, their role in county governments in Utah encompasses more. For example, they play a vital role in not just preparing the county budget, but have many opportunities to make recommendations and shape the budget’s priorities. In short, they are more akin to a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) for the county rather than a financial process watchdog. Lastly, it’s important to realize that their duties do not extend to the incorporated cities and towns in the county.
While the law enforcement role of the county sheriff is generally understood, it’s useful to clarify that the county sheriff—unless contracted to do so—does not provide direct law enforcement service to cities and towns. They do manage the county jail, provide prisoner transportation, and oversee a variety of other services, such as search and rescue.
The county attorney’s primary duty is the prosecution of those who violate county ordinances or state criminal laws within a county’s borders. They also act as legal representation when the county needs to defend itself or one of its officials.
The clerk’s most high-profile role is that of the chief election officer for the county. Within constraints set by state law and county ordinances, they procure voting equipment, oversee vote processing, and prepare official election results. They do not have the authority to set voter qualifications or to eliminate or institute various election processes such as vote-by-mail. The clerk maintains many records produced and held by the county, such as marriage licenses, voter rolls, meeting agendas, and ordinances.
With their basic roles now described, the next step to achieving knowledge and confidence when completing a ballot would be to familiarize yourself with your county’s website, the issues being discussed at public meetings, and with the officials themselves. It’s not without its difficulties, but if you care about making a difference in your backyard, your county is a great place to start.