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Few Salt Lake County Democrats have proved so popular, and for so long.

First elected before the latest batch of registered voters was born, Sherrie Swensen has spent the past 20 years overseeing balloting, issuing marriage licenses and processing passports as clerk of Utah's most populous county.

Despite the Democratic (and, in Utah politics, often dreaded) "D" beside her name, Swensen has won election after election, drubbing Republican rivals by no less than 15 percentage points since the late 1990s. Her latest challenger, Jeremy Votaw, lost by 22 on Nov. 2.

"I can't tell you how humbled I am," Swensen said, "to see those kinds of votes and numbers."

So how does Swensen do it? How does she keep winning in a county where voters, in the past two decades, generally have favored Republicans for lower-profile offices such as assessor, recorder and surveyor?

Tim Chambless, a political scientist at the University of Utah, ascribes Swensen's success in winning six straight terms to the simple phrase "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Voters are looking less at partisanship, he said, than at how she runs the office.

"You judge people in an office like that on customer service and job performance," Chambless said. "If the person who is managing that office is doing a good job, why change that person?"

And yet Swensen has her critics.

During the 2010 campaign, her GOP foe landed a couple of political punches. First, Votaw questioned her oversight of polling locations when it was discovered that residents would be voting for state Sen. Karen Mayne at a senior center that bore the name of her late husband, former state Sen. Ed P. Mayne. The Lieutenant Governor's Office found no wrongdoing. Swensen said she hadn't known about the name change but covered the sign to "appease" critics.

Votaw argued Swensen was propagating her name at voting locations when the clerk's seal, printed with her name, was attached to a public notice on early-voting machines. The notice, which Swensen ordered taken down, told voters that a legislative candidate had been removed from the race. Swensen called it a mistake and said she had instructed her staff not to include her name on that notice.

Incumbency is powerful, Votaw said, particularly in the Clerk's Office.

"One has to think about 'Monopoly,' " he said. "Have you ever noticed the banker always wins? It is hard to believe that the person whose name is on the ballot is the person administering the elections."

Then again, overseeing elections is her job.

Swensen says the criticisms are nothing more than politics. And she said voters saw through them when 61 percent of them chose to return her to office.

Swensen credits her electoral triumphs to success within the office — namely, increasing voter registration, making marriage licenses more convenient and saving passport seekers time in processing their applications.

Elections • Swensen added 150,000 people to the voting rolls during her first two years, and many more since then. Her outreach efforts — which once included a motor home dubbed the "Clerk Mobile" — have become a hallmark of her tenure.

Just this year, she conducted voter-registration drives at 11 high schools. She visited 16 senior centers to answer questions and demonstrate how to use the voting equipment. She offered drive-through registration on the curb outside her office to allow prospective voters to sign up without getting out of their cars.

"Democracy," she said, "is only served when people participate."

Marriage licenses • As a new clerk almost two decades ago, Swensen scrapped a handful of rules she considered unnecessarily rigid.

The first required couples to apply for marriage licenses at the same time. (They now can come in separately if their schedules don't mesh.) The second was to schedule wedding ceremonies at least two weeks in advance. (Swensen now accepts walk-ins.)

Swensen said her philosophy is to make the application process as headache-free as possible.

Consequently, Swensen has found herself issuing marriage licenses in hospital rooms (once to a couple whose family suffered a medical emergency before the wedding), at restaurants (once to a soldier who couldn't make it to her office in time) and even in her own living room (once to a couple at midnight who planned to get married the next morning).

"I will go weekends, evenings, wherever it may take me," Swensen said. "That is part of what this office is all about."

Passports • Although the federal government is largely responsible for the timing of passports, Swensen said offering a photography service went a long way toward making her passport office more convenient. The office now is a one-stop shop for passport seekers.

Those kinds of services have led to her longevity, Chambless said. So far, she hasn't given anyone a reason to fire her.

"When she is rendering a good service," he said, "she is, in a sense, asking people for their vote."

Swensen has become a formidable candidate whose name has become much more than a Jane Doe on the ballot — a point conceded by opponents.

Thomas Wright, chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, said Swensen has a unique ability to brand herself as the clerk.

"She is able to get free name ID because of the position she is in, at taxpayer expense," he said. "Subtle branding over a long period of time has an impact on [voters'] cognitive recognition of a name."

Swensen's name appears on voter-registration cards, on sample ballots and on news releases announcing everything from early-voting locations to vote-by-mail deadlines.

It once appeared on every page of a ballot book — because of new election software, Swensen said — resulting in a court ruling that ordered the clerk's name be printed only once.

Republicans also suggest a more subtle way that Swensen gives Democrats a nudge at the polls: She always puts them first on the ballot.

But Weston Clark, chairman of the Salt Lake County Democrats, argued Swensen has been able to keep her office because she hasn't sullied her reputation.

"People are putting a lot of trust in her running the office with honesty and integrity," he said. "She has proven to do that over the years."

So while other elective county offices remain largely Republican — the GOP has controlled the Assessor's and Recorder's offices exclusively for the past 20 years and kept Democrats from serving more than a single term as surveyor, treasurer and auditor during that period — the Clerk's Office remains solidly Democratic.

The winning margin

Despite her Democratic label, Sherrie Swensen has remained solidly in control of the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office. Here is a look at how well she has fared in the past six elections:

Year Margin of victory (%)

2010 22.4

2006 19.7

2002 23.1

1998 15.4

1994 9.6

1990 4.9

Source: Salt Lake County Clerk's Office —

Partisan playing field since 1990

When it comes to lower-profile elective offices in county government, two have remained solidly Republican during the past two decades (assessor and recorder). In three offices, Democrats have snagged single terms — but no more (auditor, surveyor and treasurer). The public-safety contests have proven more competitive, with the Sheriff's Office held mostly by Republicans (Democrat Jim Winder just won a second term) and the District Attorney's Office leaning Democratic (Democrat Sim Gill recently ousted one-term Republican Lohra Miller).