The bills seek to address issues that played out in real time during the race between now Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman
Rep. Carl Albrecht is running a bill, for example, that would create a neutral adviser to resolve election complaints when a lieutenant governor, which by law is the chief elections officer, runs for certain state offices. Albrecht said the proposal came after hearing from constituents who were concerned about Cox’s role overseeing the election.
“I received several complaints from my constituents and other folks in rural Utah about a possible conflict of interest there with the lieutenant governor and the elections office and his office — ‘is that the fox guarding the hen house?’ type comments,” Albrecht, R-Richfield, told lawmakers during a committee hearing on the bill late last month.
(Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections, said the complaints the office received about Cox had no merit but noted that there were a few instances in which the campaign was fined for filing late financial reports.)
Albrecht noted that he “went around the bush” several times trying to figure out who would be best to appoint the independent adviser. The treasurer, auditor and attorney general would be running for the election at the same time, so they were out, he said. And he worried that the Senate president and House speaker would be perceived as too political.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “It really is.”
Rep. Cory Maloy also questioned why the bill would “single out the lieutenant governor,” noting that “any one of us as elected officials could be seeking different office, higher office, and have a conflict of interest while we’re still in our current roles.”
Lee, who said the office was supportive of the bill, noted that the lieutenant governor has “ultimate decision making authority when it comes to complaints.”
“So really that office is the only office that has any real direct control over the election process,” he added.
The bill is currently awaiting further consideration in the Senate.
A second bill moving through the Legislature seeks to address a notoriously thorny question in Utah elections — a candidate’s residency — at the beginning of an election, rather than in the heat of a race.
“You would think this isn’t something that actually happens very often but in this last election we had another state legislative session where someone voluntarily, even though it was after the deadline, decided they didn’t meet the residency requirements and withdrew,” he said during a committee debate of the bill earlier this month. “And even in the gubernatorial election there were allegations that one of the candidates didn’t necessarily meet the residency requirements.”
Under current Utah code, an opponent’s residency must be challenged within five days after the filing period. If a contest emerges after that point, the lieutenant governor’s office “couldn’t look into the issue” and it would have to go through the courts, Teuscher noted.
“They can come and say, ‘This has already been determined by the county clerk; there isn’t any reason we need to rehash this issue anymore,’” Teuscher said.
The original version of the bill would have required a candidate to disclose information about their residency early on, but an amended version says only that they “may” choose to do so.
Determining someone’s residency is a “notoriously sticky issue,” said Lee, because it often comes down to a person’s intent. Officials have looked in the past at where a person pays taxes, where the individual’s children attend school and where the person votes to determine whether they intended to return to the state, he said.
Under state law, a candidate does not lose residency if they were “employed in the service of the United States or of Utah,” a student, or engaged in religious, missionary, philanthropic or humanitarian efforts.
Aaron Starks, former vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party, spoke in favor of the bill during its committee hearing, noting that he was in the middle of a campaign against Teuscher last year when he received a call that his residency was in question after he’d spent a little over a year in Japan opening an Asia headquarters for Franklin Covey.
Starks argued that the current state law is open to interpretation enough that it provides a window for people who have “malicious intentions” to disrupt someone’s candidacy, and he called for lawmakers to approve the bill.
“It would be nice if we could clarify the language, remove some of the subjectivity so there were objective rules written so there was guidance that conveyed an accurate interpretation of this,” he said during public comment on the bill. “Because we don’t want others to be disqualified for fictitious claims in the future or have their races disrupted or momentum lost due to this.”
Party affiliation changes
The delay would apply to all voters, except those that are newly-registered — but its practical effect would be to lock last-minute switchers out of the Utah GOP primary, since only registered Republicans can cast a ballot in that election. Utah’s Democratic Party has “open” primaries, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said in a written statement that each of the bills “provides needed clarity for both the voters and candidates who participate in our elections.”
“It is vital that the public have confidence in our elections and that the rules are clear to all those involved in the process,” she said. “… I appreciate the Legislature’s work on these issues and will continue to work with our legislators to ensure Utahns have confidence in our elections.”
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.