Editor’s note: More than 10,000 officials across the country run U.S. elections. This interview is part of a series highlighting the election heroes who are the faces of democracy.
From June 2021 until January 2023, Josh Daniels, a registered Republican, served as the county clerk in Utah County, Utah, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States and the state’s second-most populous county. Located just south of Salt Lake City in the central part of the state, it is home to the city of Provo and holds the distinction of being the youngest county in the country, with a median age of about 26 years old.
Prior to being elected county clerk, Daniels served as the county’s deputy clerk/auditor, a position he was appointed to in 2019. For his work increasing election security and piloting mobile voting for overseas, elderly, and disabled voters, Government Technology magazine named Daniels among its “top 25 doers, dreamers, and drivers” in 2020.
From 2001 to 2010, Daniels served in the Marine Corps, with deployments in Iraq and Morocco. In the Marines, he rose to the rank of sergeant and received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his performance.
An avid skier and triathlete, Daniels has a long history with Utah County. He attended Brigham Young University in Provo and later worked as the policy director at the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Lehi, Utah. He currently resides in Saratoga Springs with his wife and four children.
Daniels currently works as the CEO of InnoGov, a software company that seeks to modernize government services, including election administration. Since 2023, he has been part of Issue One’s Faces of Democracy project advocating for protections for election workers and for regular, predictable, and sufficient federal funding of elections.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Issue One: How did you end up in this profession?
Josh Daniels: I was always interested in government and making our communities better and making government work better. But I fell into election administration accidentally. I had a good friend who was elected as the county clerk. She recruited me to work for her to turn around our local county clerk’s office. I joined the office as the chief deputy clerk/auditor in Utah County in January 2019. My only experience with elections was in terms of political campaigns, so from the other side of the glass, so to speak. But I quickly learned lots about election administration. I implemented a lot of new programs and innovations in our county.
Issue One: How did your service in the Marine Corps help prepare you to be an election official?
Josh Daniels: My military experience was very valuable. I learned a lot of leadership lessons in the military and how to organize, motivate, and train a team for success, which is what we do in elections. There are a lot of different times in the military where you’re working with different kinds of stakeholders and different kinds of operations that all have to come together. That is exactly what elections are.
Issue One: What part of the election administration story in your area do you think isn’t told enough or isn’t widely understood enough?
Josh Daniels: The average person thinks that election administration is something that happens on Election Day — and only then. But when you actually look at the number of days that are dedicated to administering important functions of an election, we do elections almost every day of the year. Oftentimes we have three elections a year, including local municipal elections and special elections as well as primary and general elections. Voters overseas have to be sent ballots 60+ days before Election Day. Throughout the year, we are preparing for those election operations, maintaining voter registration lists, and providing services to voters who are changing or updating their registration status, addresses, and contact information. Few people really understand how much of a large-scale operation elections are.
Issue One: How many voters are there in Utah County, and what are the main challenges of a jurisdiction of that size?
Josh Daniels: We’ve got about 350,000 registered voters in our community of about 700,000 people. With that many voters, the thing that is actually the most laborious, that takes the most time and energy, is the constant maintenance of our voter records.
We’ve got two major colleges that contribute something in the order of 75,000 college students. We are the youngest county in Utah, so lots of young people, young adults, and constant motion of people moving all the time. So keeping our voter records up to date requires quite a bit of labor.
We’re an all vote-by-mail jurisdiction, which means we send all of our active registered voters a ballot in the mail. The biggest challenge by far is just that constant maintenance of the voter registration records. Because if we are going to send ballots in the mail, we want to make sure that we have accurate information for voters.
Issue One: Yeah, Utah, like many Western states, has adopted a vote-by-mail system. Why do you think this system has been so popular?
Josh Daniels: Vote by mail does a lot of great things. It gives you a lot more time to participate in elections. You do not have to remember to show up on Election Day, this one particular Tuesday in November. You get a nice reminder that it is time to vote because the ballot shows up at your house in the mail. Then you have time to fill that ballot out and send it back in, which gives voters the ability to actually research candidates that are on the ballot. And from an administration perspective, I find that we have higher quality voter registration lists. Our voter registration records are far more accurate because we are constantly updating them.
Issue One: A lot of people are surprised to learn that the federal government doesn’t routinely fund election administration. Why do you think the federal government should routinely invest in elections?
Josh Daniels: People sometimes say there are federal elections, but the reality is elections are administered locally across the United States. So you have disparate levels of funding and resources that can be devoted to administering elections. The experience of voters is a function of what resources are available in localities, and I think we see some pretty wide disparate experiences in elections because of that. Even in our own state, we have small, rural counties that don’t have the same economies of scale and funding that we might have in a larger urban or suburban county. So I do think it is helpful to make sure that elections across the country have some stable baseline levels of funding. Then the election experiences for voters — and things that are important like election security — are more consistent.
I think the best model would be for the federal government to grant funds to the states and then let the states administer them. If the federal government is able to provide funding and then states are able to coordinate how they implement funding, you are going to see a lot more consistency of quality and a lot less problems. Oftentimes, problems are very local; some of those problems can be solved with more resources.
Issue One: Have elections in Utah County been underfunded?
Josh Daniels: Utah County, specifically, was underfunded in elections prior to 2019. Pretty infamously in our 2018 election, our county had six-hour lines at the longest. We had a lot of complicated things on the ballot, lots of initiatives, and there were very close races that were highly scrutinized.
The county had, for the first time, transitioned to all vote by mail. But due to resources, the county had not updated voter addresses. A lot of voters showed up in person having not received a ballot in the mail because their address wasn’t up to date. So more people came to the polls than was anticipated, and they did not have enough equipment to prevent bottlenecks or long lines.
Fundamentally it was a resource issue that led to, at the longest, six-hour wait times for some voters. This resulted in some voters simply abandoning ship, refusing to wait in such long lines, and not participating, which was really unfortunate.
Issue One: Do you think that affected any races on the ballot that year?
Josh Daniels: Those long lines yielded lower voter turnout for [then-Republican Congresswoman] Mia Love among her likely most supportive people. Had our county been fully funded and not had to cut corners and make cost-cutting decisions, it is quite likely Mia Love would have won reelection. It was the Republican portion of Mia Love’s district that saw lower turnout as a result of those long lines in 2018.
Those long lines were directly a result of not having enough election machines for in-person voting. And they needed more machines for in-person voting because they had a long ballot and because lots of voters didn’t get their ballot in the mail because they had not invested the time and money necessary to update voter registration records leading up to that first vote-by-mail election.
At the time, I was the vice chair of the Utah County Republican Party, and one of my jobs was going to some of the polling locations as an observer to see if there were any problems. I went to the polling location in my town where Mia Love was previously the mayor, and there was about a one-hour wait. It was in a grocery store, and the line snaked through the grocery store, back and forth through some of the aisles. It was actually quite disruptive for the store, and they were regretting letting the county use their store as a polling location.
I observed people actually leaving, not wanting to wait in line. I talked to neighbors and friends about their experience, and a lot of them said that they hadn’t gotten a ballot in the mail and they weren’t going to wait in that long line, so they didn’t vote. And Mia Love lost by just a few hundred votes. I do think that it is likely she would have been reelected had the county funded elections more appropriately.
Issue One: If your jurisdiction had had extra funding during your tenure, how would you have spent it?
Josh Daniels: One of the things that we were not ever able to get up and running were good communication tools, like having the ability to text voters and email voters about their ballot having been delivered, or reminding them about voter registration deadlines. Being able to send notices both by mail and through digital means was one thing that we wanted to do but did not have funding for. With more funding, we would have been able to better communicate with voters.
Issue One: Utah, like a number of other states, has seen a high turnover rate among local election officials since the 2020 presidential election. Why do you think that is?
Josh Daniels: Unfortunately in the wake of the 2020 election, election administration has become a sort of political football. I think you’re seeing election officials leave when they feel like the political officials that oversee their offices don’t support them and don’t have their backs. Election administration officials need to feel like the political officials that oversee their offices will have their back and support them.
As an election administrator, you are trying to solve issues. You are trying to improve the office. You are trying to run elections in the best way that you can. And at the same time, you are being distracted by political combat with local elected officials that want to make themselves more popular at your expense.
Issue One: Did that contribute to why you decided to leave this job after the 2022 election?
Josh Daniels: I did not run for reelection largely because of the political dynamic.
We had internal battles in our county with our elected political officials that made our job difficult because those officials were giving credence to false and misleading election conspiracies and turning the administration of elections into a political issue that they could use in their own personal elections, reelections, and other political ambitions.
As a county that is supermajority Republican, the main competition to get elected as a county clerk comes in the form of the Republican convention, where local delegates and Republican activists have an outsized influence on who will win the Republican nomination. Knowing that and knowing the huge amount of criticism that I received while I was clerk because I was not giving in to all of these conspiracy theories was part of the reason I didn’t think it made sense to run for reelection.
Issue One: How did this shift in the political dynamic happen?
Josh Daniels: It came from national politicians who do not like the outcome of elections and call into question the outcome of the elections. That creates irreparable damage to everyone’s faith in elections. It has really spread within Republican circles in ways that I never would have expected. Having been involved in Republican Party politics, I never felt like election administration or trusting the outcome of an election was that high on the political issue list, but after 2020, it certainly has been.
Issue One: What was the impact of these conspiracy theories on your daily work?
Josh Daniels: Much of our day-to-day work was hijacked with people coming into the office and wanting to discuss — for hours — these theories that have been completely debunked. Our email inboxes were filled with people demanding all kinds of things. If every day of my job — and our team’s job — was going to be devoted to responding to what seemed to be a never-ending train of conspiracy theories, that is no way to serve the public.
I personally spent dozens of hours going down the rabbit hole of these election conspiracies. But every time, I would come back feeling like I had just wasted dozens of hours of my life. I have yet to come across any kind of conspiracy theory that has any basis in fact.
All of these conspiracies are false, and I wish more Republicans would stop wasting their time and energy on a lot of this misinformation that has done nothing but undermine the public’s faith and confidence in elections. It has actually reduced voter turnout among the Republicans in some places. It just makes no sense to me. Those spreading misinformation and false conspiracy theories are definitely not doing us any favors.
Issue One: Several states this year have left the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a nonprofit that works with states to improve the accuracy of their voter rolls, and it looks like there are a few more states toying with the idea of leaving. What’s your take on that?
Josh Daniels: It is really unfortunate that states would leave ERIC. It does a disservice to your own state to leave ERIC, because now, you will not have access to that information.
We used ERIC quite a bit. It was very useful. It’s a wonderful idea and service. It really was an idea that was started by election administrators who wanted to have accurate voter roles. Yet because of some unfounded conspiracy theories, now you have entire states deciding — largely on political grounds — to leave ERIC.
I don’t think anyone who is making the decision to leave ERIC is doing it with a rational basis where they understand how ERIC works. I think they are pandering to a political audience, giving the mob what they demand.
Mob politics has never been good for humanity. It is a terrible way to govern. It really frustrates me to see what should be reputable government actors acting completely on unfounded accusations, rumors, and conspiracy theories.
Issue One: Outside of being passionate about running safe and secure elections, what are your hobbies?
Josh Daniels: I love skiing. In Utah, we have the greatest snow on earth. I love to spend time on the slopes. Also, I have four busy and active kids. I love to hang out with them. We love hiking in the mountains. My kids are also big hockey players, so I spend a lot of time in the audience watching hockey games.
Issue One: I understand you also compete in triathlons. Any favorite locations?
Josh Daniels: Yeah. As we speak, I’m preparing for the annual Spudman Triathlon in Burley, Idaho. It is a great triathlon because you get to swim with the current of the Snake River, which makes the swim a little easier.
Issue One: Which historical figure would you have most liked to have the opportunity to meet and why?
Josh Daniels: That’s a tough question. There are so many. I’ve always been impressed by the scale of the Roman Empire. It is so fascinating to think about both the rise of the Roman Empire and also its collapse. I would love to meet some of the key figures in Roman history and interview them. One that really sticks out to me is one of the last emperors, Nero. He was there at a time of decline of the Roman Empire, and I would love to learn about the mistakes of the Roman Empire. I would love to hear about what went wrong.
Issue One: What is your favorite book or movie?
Josh Daniels: I love the movie “Top Gun.” When I was young, that was a movie that got me interested in maybe joining the military someday. The second “Top Gun” was really good too. Probably one of the best movies ever made.
Note: This piece was cross-published with The Fulcrum.