SALT LAKE CITY — Changes are expected to be made to the state’s primary election — including potentially moving the date from June 30 to August 4 — in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the state senator drafting a bill for a special session of the Utah Legislature being held next week.
Whether or not to move the primary date is “the key decision that needs to be made first,” Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, told the Deseret News on Tuesday, and will determine whether lawmakers also have to come up with money during the special session for protective gear for elections officials who handle ballots.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the session will likely start April 15 or 16, and will be the first called by lawmakers themselves under a recent constitutional change — and the first held entirely online, a new process approved in the regular session as the COVID-19 outbreak was escalating.
“This will be kind of a unique special session,” Adams said after he and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, met with Gov. Gary Herbert late Tuesday afternoon. “I think we felt like this is an opportunity, with the state of emergency we’re in, to call ourselves into special session.”
Until voters amended the Utah Constitution in 2018, only the governor could call a special legislative session and set the agenda. Now, lawmakers can do so to deal with “matters such as a fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster or other emergency.”
Adams said even though it isn’t required because of the emergency nature of the session, the agenda will be released at least 48 hours in advance. He said the online session will likely last more than a day because of technological restraints that will require one chamber to meet at a time.
The special session agenda will include shifting funds to accommodate the change in the federal tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15, since the new budget year begins July 1. But the Senate president said any budget cuts will wait because it’s unclear how much the state’s revenue projections will drop.
“We’re not sure where the bottom is,” Adams said.
Other items on the agenda include the primary election, giving liability protections to health care providers caring for COVID-19 patients, ensuring the state can accept federal stimulus funds and additional unemployment benefits, and managing different levels of stay-in-place orders within the state.
Adams said he does not expect the Legislature to issue a statewide stay-in-place order as most other states have done, but does anticipate action to make it clear how stricter orders already in place in Salt Lake and other counties affect other parts of the state.
“I think an order is a very tough thing,” Adams said. “Most Utahns, as you’ve seen, have reacted very well to suggestions rather than an order. ... We need to be careful. Our numbers are looking reasonably well. We’re doing the right things in Utah.”
Harper said the primary election bill may or may not call for changes to the signature-gathering process that permits candidates to guarantee a place on the primary ballot. He said it will likely be up to legislative leaders whether that deadline, now April 13, is extended or even dropped to put all candidates on the primary ballot.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and Jan Garbett, two of the seven Republicans running, are still trying to gather the 28,000 verified voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Only two candidates, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, have met the threshold.
State GOP delegates are set to advance up to two gubernatorial candidates to the primary ballot at their April 25 virtual convention. Harper said lawmakers are hearing from candidates and their supporters on both sides of the issue.
Other issues that would have to be dealt with if the primary election date stays the same include curbing in-person voting. Utah’s elections are conducted largely by mail, but voters still show up to polling locations for early voting and on Election Day.
County clerks would also have to “let the ballots sit three to five days before they open them up in order to reduce the chance of the virus spreading if it comes in,” the senator said, potentially requiring more time to be counted than the current two weeks before the official canvass.
About half of the county clerks statewide have weighed in so far and are split over moving the election, Harper said, adding similar provisions still might end up being needed for a later election if the COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing haven’t been eased.
“We all hope we’re back to normal by then, but there’s no guarantee,” he said. “Do we get anything more, more assurances, by delaying it or not. Or, I’m hearing this back from a few candidates and some of the county clerks, saying, ‘We’re all geared up. People are expecting that we do things on June 30.’”
For now, Harper said he and other lawmakers “are all at the point now where we just don’t have information to make that call. Hopefully, later on this week we will. We’re waiting for information for people on the ground, handling these elections every year. We’re waiting for the professional input.”
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she’s told state officials the election needs to be moved.
“It’s critical, I believe, that we move this primary to August,” Swensen said, warning that it could be dangerous for employees to start preparing for the election as scheduled in mid-May, including readying ballots to be mailed by early June.
She said it’s currently impossible to secure the face masks, hand sanitizer and other supplies needed to make the workplace safe. Swenson, at the end of a 14-day quarantine after a worker in the marriage division tested positive for the virus, said protective gear and other measures will likely be needed no matter when the election is held.
Also, Swensen said some in-person voting will be necessary to accommodate voters with special needs and others, so she’s already been scouting out larger locations that would permit social distancing for poll workers and voters, such as the Utah State Fairgrounds.