ST. GEORGE — Convicted felons who regain their right to vote can run for public office in Utah. Whether they can hold office if they win is another question, and it's about time residents found out.
"There are ambiguities in the law," said Cedar City Attorney Paul Bittmann, who is keeping an eye on the mayor's race this year because a convicted felon is challenging current mayor Gerald Sherratt.
Four years ago, 17 percent of registered St. George voters picked Tarrell McKay Hughes for mayor even though Hughes had a lengthy criminal record. Hughes also had a court date on a second-degree felony drug distribution charge in 2001 that was later dismissed.
Ernest Miller, 54, doesn't expect to win and considers his conviction 17 years ago on a second-degree felony drug charge ancient history. Miller said he long ago met his obligations and is in the process of getting his record expunged.
"How long do you hold something against a guy?" said Miller, who once owned a sports bar in town and said he is now retired. "I'm a different person now. Every cell in my body has changed. I didn't really expect to win, but this thing seems like it's becoming a big deal," he said. "I was going to maybe bow out and let Jerry have it, but I don't really want to do that. Somebody has to represent the elderly and poor people, and that's what I want to do."
Miller's right to vote was restored once terms of his probation were completed.
"I have my voter registration card and everything," he said. "I don't understand why I couldn't hold office if I win."
St. George city recorder Gay Cragun said it makes little sense to allow convicted felons the right to vote and run for public office if they can't legally hold office.
"What's the point?" she said. "There's a horrible ambiguity in the law and they need to do something about it."
Earlier this month Mark Lofgren, a convicted felon, ran for mayor of Eagle Mountain only to lose in the primary. Lofgren insisted that he had the right to run for public office and to serve if elected.
But when town attorneys advised the city recorder otherwise Lofgren said his rights were being violated.
"A candidate's civil and political rights, under federal law, are nothing to trifle with since those rights, and America's political system itself, are virtually sacrosanct," Lofgren said in a news release.
Miller said he agrees with Lofgren and has contacted an attorney for a legal opinion.
"I guess there's no cut and dried answer to it," he said. "It sounds like it's kind of in murky waters."
Bittmann said it's a legal question that needs to be answered.
"I knew Ernest had a felony and I talked to the Utah Attorney General's office about it," he said. "They said there's no ambiguity, but I say there is."
At issue is the wording of Article IV, Section 6, of the state Constitution and the corresponding state law that governs candidates for municipal general elections.
The Constitution forbids convicted felons from voting in any election or be eligible to hold office until the right to vote or hold elective office is restored as provided by statute.
Utah law (20A-9-203-1c) also states that a person may become a candidate for any municipal office if the person is a registered voter and meets other eligibility requirements. The law also states that convicted felons may not hold office until the right to vote or hold elective office is restored as provided by statute.
"The AG's office is telling me the word 'or' really means 'and,' " Bittmann said. "I think 'or' means 'or,' " adding that someone needs to run a bill to clear up the ambiguity.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts said while no one in his office has discussed that idea, it "would be best" if the Legislature "made clear" its intent.
"It is this office's conclusion that the Legislature did not intend to allow convicted felons to hold office," Roberts said. "It would appear there are some people who interpret the law differently."