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Week 4 Legislative Recap: Vote by mail, press access, police reform

Utah lawmakers tackled election security, media rules and more this week.

The Utah Legislative session hit the halfway mark this week. A lot has happened — from a newly released election bill to debates over press access and police reform.

KUER politics reporter and State Streetpodcast co-host Sonja Hutson joined host Caroline Ballard to break it all down.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Let's dive right in with a controversial election bill that was unveiled last night by Republican Representative Phil Lyman from Blanding. What would that do? 

Sonja Hutson: This would really drastically change elections in Utah. Here's a few of the big things that this legislation does.

It eliminates vote by mail. Voters still could cast a ballot via absentee ballot if they are out of state during voting, if they're disabled or if they're hospitalized. But other than that — you got to vote in person.

It also bans voter registration drives, which is one of the main ways that voting rights advocates say they increase voter turnout, particularly among people of color and low-income people.

The bill also requires paper ballots in most cases and requires video monitoring of ballot counting. It also limits the way that you can prove your identity at polling locations if you don't have a photo ID.

CB: So much of Utah's election [turnout] in recent years has been mail-in voting, so that is a huge change. Is the legislation going anywhere? 

SH: It is a huge change and honestly, it's kind of up in the air at this point. This bill just came out. House Speaker Brad Wilson, who obviously has a ton of influence over what happens to any bill in the House, says he hasn't read the legislation yet, but he did say that he likes vote by mail. Although he did say that this could be a time to discuss if vote by mail could be working better — should we make some improvements instead of eliminating it?

The lieutenant governor's office really opposes this bill, so they'll definitely be putting a lot of pressure on the Legislature not to pass it.

CB: Press access was up for debate this week. A Senate committee passed a resolution that limits access to certain areas. Tell me about that. 

SH: In order to access nonpublic areas like, for example, the Senate floor or some private hallways, a member of the media would have to get permission from a media designee or from a senator. Right now, journalists with press credentials can be in some of those places without permission as long as the Senate has adjourned. This basically adds another hoop to jump through in order to get access to lawmakers.

Senators say this is a security issue, but some of the journalists that testified in the hearing said that that issue could be taken care of through the press credentialing process. Those journalists also said it's really important to their reporting to be able to go to the floor and ask a senator a few clarifying questions about a bill.

CB: Police reform is back this year. Several bills were up for debate this week, but let's just talk about the one that's made it the furthest. That legislation deals with intervening in police misconduct. 

SH: This requires police to intervene when they see another officer engaging in misconduct, like, for example, using excessive force. It also requires police to report that misconduct and it prevents any retaliation against them because of it.

Lots of people came together on this, including law enforcement, activists and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office. So that was pretty remarkable, and the sponsor was really proud of that.

This bill unanimously passed in the Senate.

CB: We always like to end these with a little piece of fun legislation. It is a Friday, after all. So let's talk about doing away with daylight saving time. That proposal is back. 

SH: It is back! So under this bill this year, we would spring forward and then stay in that time. So when it's not daylight saving time — fall to the spring — we would be an hour ahead of our neighboring states in the Mountain time zone. During daylight saving time — from the spring to the fall — we would be in the same time zone as our neighboring states, but an hour ahead of Arizona.

Back in 2020, you might remember the Legislature passed a law to do the same thing, but it only goes into effect if four other Western states adopt similar laws and if the federal government signs off on it. So this would just let us do it regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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