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If former Rep. Joel Ferry resigns again, what happens to his Utah Legislature seat?

The Utah House of Representatives during the 2022 legislative session, Jan. 25, 2022.
Ivana Martinez
The Utah House of Representatives during the 2022 legislative session, Jan. 25, 2022.

After Joel Ferry was confirmed by the Utah Senate in August to be the state’s new Department of Natural Resources executive director, he resigned from his seat in the Legislature.

But the Republican decided to remain on the ballot for the 2022 midterm election. Now, he leads the House District 1 race with 82% of the vote against Democratic challenger Josh Hardy.

Ferry’s district covers Box Elder County and a sliver of Cache County and has historically voted red. In 2020, Ferry retained his seat with nearly 80% voter support, and Republicans have won the area with more than 70% of the vote in the last five elections.

Gov. Spencer Cox appointed Ferry to the executive branch position four days before the June primary election. Ferry was confirmed as director after the primary. And because of that, chair of the Utah Republican Party Carson Jorgensen said there wasn’t enough time to field another candidate.

“Had he not been able to run or had he not stayed on the ballot again, we then don't have a Republican candidate and we're forced to give that seat to the Democrat, which is not representative of that area,” Jorgensen said.

The Utah Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in federal court in September to remove Ferry’s name from the ballot, but Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and a federal judge declined to do so.

University of Utah Political Science Professor Matthew Burbank said if the party had been successful in removing Ferry’s name from the ballot, it would have given Democrats a win in a district they would normally lose.

“Now, in practice, of course, it rarely matters because there's such an overwhelming majority of Republicans [in the Legislature] that even had Democrats won that seat, it wouldn't change anything,” he said. “Other than Democrats could claim to have that seat and that would be new for them.”

Democrats demanded Ferry’s resignation from the legislature when he was filling in as acting director for the department while maintaining his role as a lawmaker. Democrats argue it was against the Utah Constitution for Ferry to hold both positions.

Now, the Democrats are waiting to see if Ferry resigns this time around.

“It looks like he'll be reelected and hopefully resign that position as soon as possible and not sit on it for a few months like he did last time,” said Utah Democratic Party Communications Director Ben Anderson.

He added the party will “certainly be watching” for Ferry’s resignation and stands by its assertion that “it's absolutely unconstitutional for someone to hold a position in the executive branch and in the legislature.”

Ferry hasn’t publicly announced his resignation from the legislature for the 2022-2024 term and did not return KUER’s request for comment by the time this story was published.

Jorgensen also said he hopes Ferry steps down sooner rather than later so the party “can be ready for the new person.”

If Ferry does give up his spot, there will be a “special election” in which only District 1 Republican delegates will decide who his legislative replacement will be. Since the district crosses county boundaries, the statewide Republican Party is in charge of organizing the event.

Once a sitting lawmaker announces their resignation, Jorgensen said the party has to give 14 days notice of the special election and has 30 days to find a replacement.

Each candidate running to replace an elected lawmaker has three minutes to appeal to delegates. After everyone has made their pitch, delegates vote for who they want and start the elimination process.

When Ferry resigned the first time, district delegates selected Tom Peterson to take over his spot for the remainder of the year. He will have to gain the approval of delegates a second time if Ferry chooses to resign again.

According to Utah House of Representatives Communications Manager Alexa Roberts, the lt. governor would have to certify the special election results.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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