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Election bill easily clears special session. Here’s what that means for Utah voters

Floortime in the Utah House of Representatives during a special session to consider changes to the 2023 election calendar, June 14, 2023.
Saige Miller
Floortime in the Utah House of Representatives during a special session to consider changes to the 2023 election calendar, June 14, 2023.

Temporary changes to Utah election laws are here.

The Utah Legislature overwhelmingly approved new election dates during a special legislative session Wednesday evening to speed up the timeline to find Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart’s replacement after he unexpectedly resigned from Washington. Stewart will step down on Sept. 15. With a looming vacancy, lawmakers voted on a revised bill related to the upcoming statewide municipal and special elections.

Gov. Spencer Cox called the special session to push back the municipal election days, originally scheduled for Aug. 15 and Nov. 7. Without legislative intervention, the soonest Utah’s 2nd Congressional District seat could be filled would have been next March.

The legislation outlines new election days, when mail-in ballots need to be postmarked and the deadline to switch voter party affiliation ahead of the primary. But the changes only apply to this election cycle. Once the clock strikes May 1, 2024, the statute disappears and Utah returns to its traditional election system.

Republican House bill sponsor Rep. Calvin Musselman said the election bill “mirrors” the normal process. He said scheduling the municipal election and special election on the same dates reduces voter fatigue and confusion while “maintaining election integrity and security.”

Cox is currently out of the country but his office said a staffer will physically bring the bill to him. It is unclear when he will sign it.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021.
Al Drago
Pool via AP
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 15, 2021.

Party affiliation

Under the bill, CD2 voters who want to switch their voter affiliation ahead of the Sept. 5 special congressional primary election have to do so before Cox signs the bill. Only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the CD2 closed GOP primary.

Those who change their party affiliation after the governor signs the bill won’t have it take effect until Sept. 6. It effectively blocks anyone who changed their affiliation to Republican after the governor signs it from voting in the GOP primary.

The proposed change to the affiliation deadline does not apply to unaffiliated voters; they can register with a party up until Election Day.

To Democratic state Sen. Nate Blouin, the short timeline to change parties “is an attempt” for the Utah Republican Party to “put their thumb on the scale in favor of more conservative candidates.” He added it also strips away autonomy from voters.

“Not giving any notice doesn’t allow some voters to participate in an election they may otherwise choose to vote in,” Blouin said.

Republican Sen. Scott Sandall believes “it would be a bad precedent” for the Legislature to allow Utahns to switch parties just to vote for the GOP candidate they want despite not being a Republican. He pointed to the 2020 Utah gubernatorial primary race between Gov. Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as an example of people encouraging others to affiliate as Republicans “to maybe sway the election.”

“Any manipulation by people just changing parties to be able to sway that [special congressional primary] election, I think, would be detrimental to the process,” he said.

Sandall said the Republican caucus hasn’t discussed whether they should move the party affiliation deadline to give people more notice.

Need to know dates

Sandall said updating the election days is necessary because the state’s computers don’t allow two elections to be run simultaneously that are not on the same election days.

“So we could not run our municipal elections with dates that did not coincide exactly with the congressional election,” he said.

The selected dates are nestled in between two federal holidays. The primary election is on Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day and the general election is Nov. 21, two days before Thanksgiving.

  • The municipal and special congressional primary election on Sept. 5 
  • Mail-in ballots CAN be postmarked ON Election Day, Sept. 5
  • The municipal and special congressional general election on Nov. 21
  • Mail-in ballots CAN be postmarked ON Election Day, Nov. 21 

Traditionally, mail-in ballots must be postmarked the day prior to Election Day. But the postal service won’t be open on Labor Day. If a voter postmarks their ballot on Election Day, it’ll count. That applies to both the primary and the general election this year only.

After this election cycle, the law reverts to the original statute. So for the presidential election, mail-in ballots will have to be postmarked the day before the election.

Earlier this year, Blouin introduced a bill to make post-marking ballots on Election Day the status quo. It didn’t pass.

“I do worry that doing it just for the special election is going to cause some confusion in the future,” Blouin said. “So to me, it makes sense to align those things and reduce confusion and say we're always going to allow this.”

Election money

The bill allocates $2.5 million for the updated election process. That money will be sent to the county clerks who are now in charge of running all municipal elections on the new calendar, plus a special election for counties in CD2.

Sandall said the state will cover additional expenses caused by shaking up the election days, like educating voters about the new dates and printing more ballots.

“That's going to be more expensive for them. They simply cannot or have not budgeted for that. The state's going to have to come in and backfill that money for them,” he said. “And we're willing as a state to be able to fund that.”

The funding does have a priority system. Ryan Cowley, the state elections director, said the counties in CD2 will get first dibs “to shoulder the cost” of running an additional election. After that, counties outside the district’s boundaries will get some money since some weren’t planning on conducting an election at all.

Cowley said many of the smaller counties were already slated to help run the municipal elections, which cities have budgeted for. But because of “unforeseen circumstances of moving the dates,” Cowely said “there are some of those costs, which are pretty nominal, but in a small city and a small county, a little bit of money is a substantial amount of money,” to help pay election costs.

The entire election process will also be audited.

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