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Utah County's Online Marriage System Takes Off During Pandemic

Digital marriage licenses. Zoom ceremonies. Everyday citizens becoming wedding officiants. Utah County, Utah's online marriage license system became a big hit after COVID-19 shut down most offices that issue marriage licenses.

gold wedding rings on a keyboard
As Utah County got close to demoing its online marriage license system in December 2019, little did anyone know the system would save the wedding plans of multiple anxious couples during a worldwide pandemic just a few months later.

The end-to-end online process was live by January 2020, thanks to the vision of Clerk/Auditor Amanda Powers Gardner and her deputy Josh Daniels, a duo that has also pushed the envelope with blockchain-based mobile voting.

The system’s rollout came in the nick of time.

“Once state and local governments started to shut down, many offices that would do marriages and marriage licenses shut down, and we were the only ones in business … they [couples] had nowhere to turn, and they turned to Utah County,” Daniels said.

Daniels told Government Technology that during 2020 his office issued more than 11,000 marriage licenses, a record for the county — the previous high mark was in the neighborhood of 8,000 licenses in a year. Thus far in 2021, the office has issued about 3,300 licenses. For both years, anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of all license processes were completely remote.

“Even the officiant fills out everything online,” said Gardner, who recently became the first woman elected to the Utah County Commission. “It’s a completely paperless process. We still send them a paper marriage certificate.”

In response to stay-at-home orders that made in-person weddings impossible, the office started conducting weddings over Zoom in the middle of March 2020. Under Utah law, county clerks and their designees can officiate weddings. In other words, the law gave Gardner the flexibility to grant multiple people in her office the ability to officiate, so citizens could easily make appointments for virtual office visits and get married remotely. Even more notable, an everyday person can become an officiant by filling out an application from the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office, Daniels explained.

“We became the preferred supplier not only for marriage licenses but also for making officiants,” Gardner said.

Utah County’s system caught the attention of multiple current and former high-profile elected officials when COVID-19 upended the world.

Gardner recounted a phone call she received from former U.S. Rep. Mia Love, whose daughter and fiancé had to cancel their wedding reception due to COVID-19. “Please tell me I didn’t lie to my daughter,” Love said to Gardner on the phone, in reference to Utah County’s online system. Gardner told Love that her daughter could get married anywhere in the state of Utah. Love’s daughter wanted to get married on a mountaintop.

“I made her cousin the marriage officiant, and she had a tiny little wedding with 10 people … and they got married on a mountaintop,” Gardner said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee’s son would also take advantage of Utah County’s system. And later, Gardner said she received a call from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, which wanted to know how Utah County was handling the entire remote wedding procedure. Less than a week later, according to Gardner, Cuomo issued an executive order legalizing remote wedding licenses and ceremonies in New York.

Issuing marriage licenses remotely not only serves citizens in a new way but also frees up resources for the office, Daniels said. With the online marriage system in place, staff have been able to focus more on another responsibility: issuing passports. Unsurprisingly, the office has seen an increase in passports.

“The office isn’t getting any less busy, but it’s doing more with less,” Daniels said.

Utah County’s interpretation of marriage law — namely, that people don’t have to be in a particular location to be wed — has also led to new opportunities for a first-of-its-kind business called WebWed Mobile, which has facilitated more than 23,000 military, inmate and international weddings since 2016 through a patented tech platform. In 2019, the business, which has several offices and headquarters, opened a location in Utah County.

JC Banks, who co-founded WebWed with her husband Randy, said her business has approached multiple states and local areas about distanced weddings and that Utah was the first state to recognize that people shouldn’t have to be physically present to get hitched. The legal interpretation in Utah “opened up the door” for WebWed to facilitate international weddings — an example of how local government innovation can foster more private-sector success in addition to serving individual citizens.

“It was very refreshing to have a state that understood and saw what we had been seeing … I adore Utah for that,” she said.

Daniels believes other local areas have the potential to innovate like Utah County, especially when it comes to executing “documents in a digital way.” He cited the fact that most states have adopted the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA), which posits that electronic documents have validity. He thinks that if one adopts and embraces the principles of UETA, “the sky’s the limit in terms of creating more efficiency and innovation and convenience for constituencies and members of the public.”

“The broader conversation is if a government office provides a service to people, and our practice is to provide that service in an over-the-counter way …. why can’t we do some of these things virtually?” Daniels said.
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.