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How Spencer Cox plans to navigate tricky dual roles as candidate, elections czar

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Lt. Governor Spencer Cox gives the keynote address as officials mark the 12th annual Governor’s Idle Free Declaration during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — No one would argue it took a heck of a lot of finesse for tiny David to take down Goliath in an event the Bible details as a turning point on the young man’s journey to becoming the eventual king of Israel.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox posted an illustration of the famous Old Testament story, uncaptioned, in a pithy Twitter response to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s announcement of plans to enter the 2020 gubernatorial race. Cox, who announced his own candidacy this spring, may see himself on a similar journey as the sling-wielding David, as he now faces both seasoned intraparty political opponents as well as a unique intraoffice challenge.

Cox is embracing some finesse of his own in order to navigate this tricky dual role as the sitting lieutenant governor of Utah and a declared gubernatorial candidate. Thanks to the primary duties of the office he assumed in 2013, Cox is the chief overseer of the election process with “direct authority over the conduct of elections for federal, state and multicounty officers” in which, this time around, he is also a participant.

But Cox has a plan in place that he says will avoid any conflict of interest.

The first steps toward addressing any potential controversy that his dual role could foment were detailed in a memorandum issued earlier this year by Cox appointee and Utah Director of Elections Justin Lee.

“Because the lieutenant governor intends to run for the office of governor in 2020, we want to avoid any actual or perceived bias should a complaint arise that involves the Cox campaign, or the gubernatorial race,” Lee wrote. “To that end, if an election controversy arises that has any connection to the Cox campaign, the gubernatorial race or Spencer Cox as a candidate, the lieutenant governor will not consult directly with his staff about the matter in the first instance, but the staff will defer questions to a neutral third party who will review the matter and make a recommendation to the lieutenant governor.”

Accordingly, former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie has agreed to work with the election office, Lee said, in an advisory capacity as a resource who can review any election issues from which Cox would need to abstain. McKeachnie served as lieutenant governor under former Utah Gov. Olene Walker and earlier, four terms in the Utah House of Representatives.

If a complaint is made regarding Cox, his campaign or the gubernatorial race, the response procedures will be implemented as usual, with the modification of isolating Cox from the process while adding McKeachnie. If it’s a matter that cannot be resolved by the election director and staff under clear rule of law, or requires further review, McKechnie will be utilized to assess the issue and submit an independent recommendation for resolution.

Cox said the structure strikes the right balance between maintaining his statutory electoral duties and ensuring a clear and public process to address any potential anomalies that is appropriately independent of his candidacy.

“We have to follow rules and enforce them,” Cox said. “This answers the question, how can we add the most transparency to this and make sure, for the public, that we’re preserving foundational respect for our election system and voting while making sure people are comfortable with the decision being made.”

Utah is unusual as one of only three states that does not have an independent secretary of state office that, in most instances, is the entity tasked with election oversight.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank noted, however, that assigning election oversight responsibilities to another elected official does not eliminate the circumstances under which Cox is now obligated to operate.

“This does come up and Utah is a bit unique because we house these responsibilities within the lieutenant governor’s office, whereas it’s usually under a secretary of state,” Burbank said. “It’s always a bit of a challenge, and in some cases, it can be quite problematic. A recent example is the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia where the secretary of state was also running for governor and created some real tensions there.”

While Utah did, for decades, have an elected secretary of state who was second-in-line to the governor, the office was dispensed of after voters in 1980 amended the state constitution to create a clearer succession structure and created the position of lieutenant governor.

Burbank said the protocols Cox has put into place have become fairly commonplace, where professional staffers navigate the day-to-day election issues and, should a policy-level issue or question arise, a designated independent third party is utilized to recommend a course of action.

Cox referenced the 2018 Georgia election issues himself in a Deseret News interview and noted, in a June statement, that the protocols bring an experienced former lieutenant governor, who is also an experienced attorney, into the mix as a safeguard of election integrity.

“We have seen controversies arise in other states when the top elections official runs for office,” Cox said. “The office of lieutenant governor belongs to the people of Utah — not to me — and Utahns need to have assurances that I will never use my position to benefit my own campaign.

“Former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie is well-respected and brings years of wisdom and experience, including having served as Utah’s chief election officer himself. I appreciate his willingness to step into this crucial advisory role. I believe that these new procedures will help the elections office to maintain public confidence, and more importantly, ensure the integrity of our elections.” 

Utah election systems have, by and large, been stable as have the laws governing how they are executed, Burbank said, which makes the likelihood of needing to bring McKeachnie into the mix as a surrogate reviewer pretty unlikely. But he also noted that anomalies can, and do, arise.

“I expect it will be a non-issue,” Burbank said. “But, as campaigns develop, you never know what might become an issue.”